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Betsy DeVos’ “Backpack Full of Cash” Portable Funding Flop

December 19, 2019

In 2016, Stone Lantern Films released “a film exploring the real cost of privatizating America’s public schools,” Backpack Full of Cash.

The movie’s title derives from a comment made by Center for Education Reform (CER) founder Jeanne Allen as Allen was being interviewed for the film:

Our children have a backpack full of cash, and the school should vie for the privilege of having that backpack turned over to them.

Allen was not pleased to have her quote transformed into a pro-public-school film title, responding in part,

“This movie is all about smearing us as anti-public education,” Allen said. “It’s a backpack full of hypocrisy.

Even so, Allen’s image of each student toting “a backpack full of cash” conjures the image of market-based ed reform seeing children not as human beings but as a means of income and profit.

Perhaps US ed sec Betsy DeVos is unaware of the Backpack film and the Allen-angering origin of its title, for DeVos herself invoked the very same image in her December 12, 2019, remarks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC):

ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) represents an important step in respecting the role of education in this country. For the first time in modern history, politicians on both sides of the aisle realized federal overreach in education had failed.

ESSA affords your states and your communities more flexibility to address your challenges. …Your states can also use a certain percentage of federal taxpayer funding in new and creative ways. There’s a student-centered funding pilot program. Dollars to follow and support students—not buildings. I like to picture kids with backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn. More states need to seize the student-centered funding pilot opportunity to do what’s right for their students. Not many have to date. [Emphasis added.]

The idea of those “backpacks… following [kids] wherever they go” is connection to ESSA precursor in the House, the Student Success Act, which included portability of Title I funding (see my December 01, 2015, post), an idea that did find its way into ESSA in restricted form:

One issue of concern in the Student Success Act (SSA), the House precursor of ESSA, involved portability of Title I funding– the money following the student– which I immediately viewed as an accounting and budgeting nightmare. In SSA, portability of funding was the rule. In contrast, ESSA does not require states to treat Title I funding as portable, but it does allow local education agencies to follow such a course by combining federal money with state and local monies in order to create a system based on funding that “follows the student.” Thus, if a local education agency wants to pursue funding portability, it can, according to Part E, Section 1501, of Title I (see page 140 of ESSA). [Page number updated.]

As DeVos told her ALEC colleagues, she is promoting ESSA portability of funding as the Student-Centered Funding Pilot program.

I find it interesting that DeVos did not announce her Student-Centered Funding Pilot until February 02, 2018, when she could have done so a year earlier with an eye towards dispersing those cash-filled, individual backpacks effective 2017-18.

I also find it interesting that DeVos is still referring to the program as a “pilot” since ESSA allowed for expansion of the portability of funding from a maximum of 50 local education agencies (LEAs) prior to 2019-20 to no limit beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

Her words to ALEC (“More states need to seize the student-centered funding pilot opportunity…. Not many have to date.”), indicate that DeVos is finding it difficult to drum up support for this cousin of private school vouchers.

So, what does pooh-pooh-federal-overreach DeVos do?

She asks the federal government for $50M to push local ed agencies (LEAs) to participate in Title I funding, individualized cash backpacks.

Yep. In an effort “to spur LEAs to participate” in Title I portability of funding (see page 26 of this USDOE FY2020 budget justification), DeVos asked Congress for $50M specifically earmarked for “student-centered funding incentive grants” for FY2020.

Part of that “spur” involves admission of a “potential negative impact on some schools of the transition to a student-centered funding system.”

So, it appears that DeVos wants federal money to cushion the loss felt during a “transition”; however, if funding moves with students, then that “transition” never ends.

As I noted in 2015, this fludity of funding poses a “budgeting nightmare”– not a transition nightmare but a recurring nightmare.

Back to the House:

It seems that House Appropriations did what DeVos insists that she wants:

They did not extend the federal reach to “spur” states to follow DeVos’ preference.

On December 16, 2019, four days after DeVos’ ALEC speech, House Appropriations denied the $50M in funding that DeVos requested in FY2020 for those student backpacks. (See page 211 of HR 1865 – Division A).

DeVos might *like picturing kids with backpacks of cash following them wherever they go to learn,* but she is apparently having trouble selling that idea on the local level and soliciting federal funding to “incentivize” local buy-in.

Looks like Betsy’s backpacks fast-tracked it to the clearance rack.

betsy devos 11

Betsy DeVos


Interested in scheduling Mercedes Schneider for a speaking engagement? Click here.


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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  1. Daniel permalink

    Its a great effort.

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  1. Mercedes Schneider: Betsy’s Backpack Full of Cash | Diane Ravitch's blog

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