debating charters

Sen. Michael Bennet to Betsy DeVos: Come visit Denver, where school choice is different

U.S. Sen Michael Bennet (Denver Post photo)

Could the next Republican secretary of education soon be visiting Denver Public Schools, a popular destination for the last two Democrats who’ve held the job?

Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet of Colorado extended the invitation to Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing Tuesday. But not before drawing a stark contrast between Denver’s approach to school choice and what has played out in DeVos’s native Michigan.

Bennet said that in Denver, “without exception we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability. And as far I can tell, Detroit has followed the opposite path.”

DeVos said she’d “love to” take Bennet up on the offer to visit Denver, but disputed the former DPS superintendent’s characterization.

In the time he was given to question DeVos, Bennet said he supports giving parents choices among high-quality public schools, including charter schools. However, Bennet said his goal has never been “school choice for its own end,” but high-quality public schools for every child from every neighborhood.

He then cited Denver’s strategy of authorizing charter schools, creating innovation schools that operate with many of the same freedoms as charters, and strengthening traditional schools.

DeVos said she looked forward to “correcting some of the record” about Detroit schools and disputed that Michigan lacks school accountability, characterizing that as “false news.”

The state of Michigan’s charter sector has emerged as central to the debate over DeVos’s qualifications to serve as education secretary. The billionaire philanthropist has been a leading architect of free-market-style school choice policies in Michigan that have proven divisive in Detroit, where the public schools are in dire straits.

Critics assert that Michigan charter schools can open wherever they want, shut down without notice and operate with less oversight than charters in some other parts of the country.

DeVos defenders say she’s created educational opportunities for families that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, noting that Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers.

In an interview Tuesday after the confirmation hearing, current DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Bennet in contrasting the Colorado and Michigan charter sectors’ differences in quality and accountability.

He said that as a result, charter schools are better integrated into the Colorado public school system on issues such as fair enrollment systems and serving special education students.

Recent data show students with mild to moderate special needs are now served equally in district-run schools and charter schools, and Denver’s charter schools lack some of the barriers to entry that distinguish charter schools in other urban districts.

Critics of Denver charter schools say they lack adequate financial transparency, get credit for serving students who are more likely to succeed and don’t offer a true choice because a lack of transportation prevents many families from enrolling.

Boasberg and Bennet have known each other since childhood, and Boasberg joined DPS in 2007 as chief operating officer during Bennet’s tenure as superintendent.

Told of Bennet’s comments, Boasberg said his guess is what Bennet “was trying to point out is that you can have a very strong charter sector in which there is a very clear set of opportunities and accountabilities and very intentional efforts to make sure that our charter schools maintain a high degree of autonomy in their academic program, and at the same time function as public schools in every sense of the word.”

Bennet later lamented the restrictions on the confirmation hearing:


Outgoing Secretary of Education John King and his predecessor, Arne Duncan, both visited Denver schools.

Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar contributed to this report. 

you say you want a resolution

Denver school board strikes back at Trump budget, Betsy DeVos’s school choice vision

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Take that, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.

The Denver school board on Thursday approved two resolutions jabbing at President Trump’s first proposed education budget and Education Secretary DeVos’s vision of school reform.

Trump’s budget, the resolution says, would slash funding for a range of programs that help Denver students, including after-school programs, financial aid and Medicaid.

More notable was the DeVos-focused resolution, called “A Resolution in Support of School Choice – Emphasis on Equity and Accountability.”

DeVos started it, essentially, suggested at a Brookings Institution event that the district was not worthy of recognition as a school choice leader because private school vouchers aren’t offered.

The board is trying to draw a stark contrast between DeVos-style reforms and those carried out in Denver Public Schools over the past decade. It reads, in part:

“(T)he Board of Education does not support private school vouchers, which would encourage public education dollars to be spent in private schools that do not serve all students and that are not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, but believes instead that public dollars should be used to support and grow public schools, both district-run and charter, that are open to and serve all students.”

Board members were more pointed in their comments during Thursday’s board meeting.

“We are witnessing an assault on public education in this country, both through the budget and the appointment of what I think most of us would agree is the least qualified secretary of education ever appointed to that office,” said board member Mike Johnson.

Board member Happy Haynes said there “have been many who have been trying to associate the work we have done, the careful work that we have done” with the Republican administration.

“We’re not going to quit. We’re not quitters,” Haynes said. “ … It’s the time to double down, and that is what we are doing tonight on this resolution.”

The resolution also amounts to a pre-emptive strike ahead of what should be a contentious school board campaign. Opponents of the incumbent school board members are all but certain to try to link them to DeVos and Trump, not exactly popular figures in heavily Democratic Denver.

van wert alert

Four things to know about Van Wert, the tiny Ohio school district where DeVos and Weingarten will form an uneasy duo

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland in March.

A small city in rural Ohio will host a high-stakes education summit on Thursday when U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits with the chief of a national teachers union who this week vowed to “educate” her.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten opposed DeVos after President Donald Trump nominated her for education secretary and called it “a sad day for children” when she was confirmed. But the political enemies still agreed to visit schools together once DeVos took office, and Weingarten chose Van Wert as their first stop.

Van Wert’s schools “do project-based learning, have grappled with rural poverty, schools that engage in children’s well-being, and that’s why we wanted her to see it,” Weingarten told Chalkbeat earlier this week, as her union launched a push to get DeVos to redirect federal funds toward public schools.

Here’s what you need to know about why the pair is headed to Van Wert and what they might see there.

  1. It’s in “Trump country.” That’s what Weingarten told Chalkbeat about why she selected the district for the visit, which marks the first in-person interaction between the two education leaders. Van Wert is just a 20 minute drive from Indiana, home of Vice President Mike Pence, and about an hour from Michigan, DeVos’s own home state. Nearly 80 percent of the 13,000 votes cast in the county in November’s election went to Trump, who did well in rural and post-industrial areas with weak economies and mostly white populations. More than 90 percent of Van Wert county residents are white, according to Census data.
  2. It also has a vibrant teachers union. The school choice foundation DeVos ran before becoming secretary was named American Federation for Children in a not-so-subtle critique of the teachers union Weingarten leads. That might not go over well with the 127 members of the AFT’s local chapter, which is led by Jeff Hood, a Van Wert physical education teacher. He told the Toledo Blade that he had asked Weingarten to bring DeVos to town. He told the newspaper: “I thought, ‘Here we go; Mrs. DeVos is now our secretary of education’ and you know the best way for me to join in the conversation is to see how I can personally invite her to come to Van Wert.”
  3. DeVos won’t be able to talk only about school choice. The education secretary made her career lobbying for choice, particularly to allow students to use public money to pay for private schools. Since becoming secretary, she’s pivoted to the topic frequently, praising leaders from Miami, New York, and Chicago for providing access to a range of school and course options. Her focus on choice won’t work in Van Wert, which unlike many urban districts does not have a range of options for families to choose from. The small city has only one elementary, one middle, and one traditional high school — along with a public alternative school for struggling students and a small Catholic elementary school.
  4. But Van Wert is home to one innovative option. At Vantage Career Center, high school juniors and seniors from the local district and a dozen others can learn industrial mechanics, welding, carpentry, and other skills while earning a diploma from their traditional school. According to a 2014 promotional video, the center is a 190,000-square-foot space that voters have helped fund, even during the recession. Forty percent of students who train at the center go on to college, while the majority head straight to jobs or apprenticeships in the community or the military, according to the center.