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With new administration, ND leaders address school choice debate

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 17, 2017. REUTERS / Yuri Gripas1 / 2
Kirsten Baesler, Apr. 2, 2016 in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 2

BISMARCK — The country's education system could be in for changes under new leadership in Washington, but how that may affect North Dakota schools remains to be seen.

President Donald Trump's contentious pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed by the narrowest margins, has promoted school choice programs as a way to improve the country's K-12 education system. And North Dakota's new governor, Doug Burgum, has spoken favorably about charter schools, which are generally publicly funded but privately managed, on the campaign trail.

On Friday, Burgum said charter schools and vouchers "can be effective" in some circumstances but the state needs to "think bigger and bolder."

"In spite of dramatic increases in funding, outcomes remain stagnant," he said in a statement that praised teachers as "some of the hardest working, most dedicated North Dakotans."

Some appear skeptical that major school choice reforms are coming to North Dakota, however.

Kirsten Baesler, the superintendent of public instruction, said the state Constitution prevents the establishment of charter schools or voucher programs here. But Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, argued the North Dakota Legislature "has power to make change in schools."

The Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, D.C., ranks North Dakota No. 48 in its "Education Opportunity Index," noting that it's one of seven states with no charter school law. DeVos' confirmation has at least brought attention to school reform efforts, Allen said, which could give states like North Dakota an opportunity to examine its own system.

"Sometimes it takes a push or a greater public awakening," she said.

Meanwhile, Nick Archuleta, president of the public employee union North Dakota United, pointed to the 89 percent of North Dakota residents who rated the quality of public education as excellent or good in a 2016 Gallup poll.

"There's no need in North Dakota for charter schools," Archuleta said in a recent press conference. "The kids in North Dakota are getting a damn good education."

Baesler said she hopes DeVos would give North Dakota officials the freedom to pursue what works for a rural state with many "isolated" school districts.

"What we will define as choice or opportunity is going to look very different than it might in Michigan or in California or in Virginia," she said.

'Movement toward reform'

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, introduced a bill this session to create an "education savings account" program, which he said was similar to vouchers. Those are commonly known as state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

School choice is finding favor at the federal level, as Trump planned to use a visit to a Florida school Friday to push vouchers, according to CBS News.

Becker's bill, however, was turned into a study of the feasibility of developing a school choice program.

"There's a movement toward reform," Becker said. "If parents have choice, if kids have more choice, that's hardly a bad thing."

Opponents worry such programs will harm public education, a criticism that was reflected in North Dakota senators' split votes on the DeVos confirmation.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., voted against her confirmation in part because of "her refusal to commit to supporting public schools under oath," according to a Feb. 7 press release from her office.

In a statement released after he voted to confirm Trump's pick, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said DeVos told him in a previous meeting that "she would not take away funding from public schools in North Dakota, and I have every intention of holding her to that commitment."

While campaigning for governor a year ago, Burgum, a Republican, argued there's "virtually no competition" in North Dakota's education system. But in a statement released Friday, he said "we need to think bigger and bolder than vouchers or charter schools.

"They can be effective in helping some students in some communities, but all students deserve a transformative education," he said.

Baesler, flanked by lawmakers and education officials at a recent press conference, promoted legislation that would establish a program to allow schools to pursue "innovative education" initiatives. She said that's evidence the state is already pursuing improvements to its education system, and Burgum called it "one important step toward unleashing the potential of every student and teacher in North Dakota."

"It will make a difference for us in North Dakota, because it is our stakeholders, our parents, our communities, our teachers, our school boards coming together to determine what do we need to do to ... improve and have continuous improvement of our schools," Baesler said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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