Residents of East Hartford, Connecticut, might have been confused to learn that they spend 15 million dollars every year funding a “dangerous daycare.” At least, that’s how Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos described East Hartford High School in her recent testimony on the Department of Education’s FY 2018 budget request.

Before a House Appropriations subcommittee on May 24, DeVos relayed a story she had allegedly heard from an East Hartford alum named Michael. In an op-ed published in the Hartford Courant, the author came forward as her informant, revealing his full name, Michael Robert Biagioni. Biagioni was a member of the East Hartford High School Class of 2000. DeVos’s remarks and her department’s budget request roiled the East Hartford community and provoked a strong response from Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, the ranking member of the subcommittee.

Throughout the hearing, DeVos defended the department’s budget and answered questions on topics ranging from civil rights to student loans. In an impassioned closing statement, DeLauro fired back, calling DeVos’s budget “cruel.”

“It is heartless…millions of kids around this country are going to suffer what has been done with a $9.2 billion cut to our education programs,” DeLauro said.

DeVos had claimed Biagioni was “constantly bullied.” The climax of her testimony was her reporting Biagioni’s description of his high school as “nothing more than adult day care … a dangerous daycare.”

“Even though he was failing his classes, the school simply passed him along from year-to-year, giving him D’s and sending the not-so-subtle message that they didn’t think Michael would amount to much,” said DeVos.

But members of the East Hartford High School say they don’t recognize the school described by the nation’s top education official.

A letter published by five East Hartford students argues against DeVos’s characterization of their school.

“My teachers…have taught me how to be a valuable member of my community and have given me the skills that have helped to make me successful in my job,” wrote Thomas Maragnano, a junior at East Hartford High.

“In the years since the person mentioned in your speech graduated, our school has transformed, developed, and prospered,” wrote Maragnano.

The students invited Secretary DeVos to tour their school, an offer echoed by East Hartford principal Matthew J. Ryan.

Two weeks after the House hearing, DeVos used her appearance before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to clarify the controversial comments.

“Let me be clear,” said DeVos. “My relaying of Michael’s story is not a blanket indictment of public schools, of Connecticut schools or even of East Hartford High School. Just as the rest of Michael’s story – the story of his profound success, which has gone largely unreported – is not a blanket endorsement of community colleges, of the Florida system of higher education or of Valencia College, where Michael is now in the school’s honors program.”

DeVos used the high school as an example of what her department’s budget request sought to remedy. “This budget,” she argued, “work[s] toward ensuring every student has an equal opportunity to receive a great education. It focuses on returning decision-making power and flexibility to the states, where it belongs, and giving parents more control over their child’s education.”

In her prepared remarks for the May 24 hearing, DeLauro said she believes that “the proposals contained in President Trump’s budget are alarming and… [transfer] taxpayer dollars out of local community schools.”

So, what exactly does the administration’s budget proposal do to help students like Biagioni?

In its FY 2018 budget proposal, the White House identified several programs administered by the Department of Education for reduction or elimination, including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, Gaining Early Awareness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), and several grants directed at reducing class sizes and increasing teacher quality. Budget documents provided by the White House argue that, in many cases, grants are “too small to have a meaningful impact,” poorly administered, and redundant.

The elimination of the GEAR UP program bears particular significance to the East Hartford controversy. The initiative aims to “increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education” by tracking and supporting a cohort of seventh graders until they graduate from high school.  Biagioni “thought he was destined for…a low-skill, low-wage job” and felt unready for college.

In 2012, East Hartford Middle School became a GEAR UP participant. Along with programming, tutoring, and mentoring, students were eligible for a college scholarship of at least $5,500. East Hartford High School, which is fed by the middle school, used the funding in 2015 to host its first College and Career Expo. The Hartford Courant reported that the day-long event included “a variety of workshops on topics such as networking, professionalism and financial planning.”

But a number of evaluations of the GEAR UP program offer conflicting results. The Office of Management and Budget claims that “there is limited evidence that GEAR UP is effective at increasing college access and persistence of its participants.”

These conclusions are supported by a 2008 study done by the Department’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. While attending a school supported by GEAR UP resulted in increased parental knowledge of postsecondary education, “there was no evidence of an association between attending a GEAR UP school and the strength of student intentions to attend college.”

Another study, conducted by Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), agreed that there was no statistically significant link between being a GEAR UP student and enrolling in college.

On the other hand, a report released that same year by Washington State University found that “GEAR UP students [in Washington state] have more positive outcomes on virtually all measures of enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment.”

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education found similarly encouraging results for their students in a 2013 evaluation; “the college-going rate of participating schools before and after participation in the GUKII program (Class of 2004 v. Class of 2011) showed an increase of 22 percentage points.”Finally, the 2008 Education Department study conceded that GEAR UP increased access to higher level classes at the middle school level.

Biagioni attended East Hartford Middle School before 2012before the school became a GEAR UP grant recipient. The first cohort of seventh-grade students participating in the program will graduate this spring, so there is no readily available data on how effective the program has been for East Hartford.

The White House’s proposed budget cuts at the Education Department are intended to pave the way for $1.4 billion of expanded federal investment in school choice programs at the state level.

School choice programs enable students to leave their particular neighborhood school. Choice programs vary widely across the country, but they often include magnet schools, charter schools, which receive waivers from certain regulations that bind traditional public schools, and vouchers, which subsidize attendance at a private school.

“Research shows that increasing education options can have positive effects on students generally, and an even greater impact on poor and minority students. If we truly want to provide better education to underserved communities, then we must start with giving parents and students the power to select high-quality schools that meet their needs,” DeVos testified.

One controversial choice reform is known as Title I portability. Under current law, states receive Title I grants to support low-income schools. Portability would allow that additional funding to “follow the student” if they choose to enroll in another school, including a charter school.

Just as with GEAR UP, evidence on the efficacy of school choice reforms is mixed. The pro-reform organization EdChoice touts twelve studies showing “statistically significant gains in academic achievement for some or all voucher students.”

However, anti-choice advocates have seized on a recent study of Louisiana’s voucher programs that shows negative impacts on student learning. Connecticut is in the midst of expanding charter school options. A 2015 study from the Connecticut State Department of Education showed mixed results; in some cases, students in choice programs performed higher than non-choice students — but the study was unable to offer “causal attribution.”

As with many difficult policy choices, an important dimension is time range. The administration’s advocacy of school choice echoes a call offered by many policymakers, families, and civil rights groups: students stuck in failing schools deserve solutions now, not years down the road. Vouchers and other choice initiatives offer an immediate short-term option for families, whereas programs like GEAR UP purport to operate in the long-term.

The final budget will likely bear little resemblance to the administration’s blueprint after Congress’s 535 legislators, including Representative DeLauro, weigh in. But no matter what it looks like, the debate about how to help students like Michael Biagioni will continue.

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