strong words

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet: Betsy DeVos is an ideologue, not the face of education reform

Michael Bennett speaks to high school seniors at Bruce Randolph School (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat).

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday visited a Denver school with a large immigrant population to quiz students about the current political climate, field their questions and calm their fears.

The setting was Bruce Randolph School, a northeast Denver middle and high school where, last month, a classroom full of middle-schoolers tweeted President Trump with messages about how their immigrant families make America great.

School leadership then visited the Colorado congressional delegation in Washington, including Bennet, to deliver bound copies of those tweets. That led Bennet to return the favor with a school visit.

Students asked the Democratic senator, a former Denver schools superintendent, about immigration policy, the expense of college and federal policy about public lands.

One student posed a simple question for Bennet: “Do you like Mexicans?” (After detailing his family’s Polish immigrant past and his work in Denver Public Schools, he made clear that yes, he does).

Bennet’s message to students on edge about the fates of their loved ones who are undocumented: “Try not to be distracted, and we’ll try to figure this out somehow.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat afterward, Bennet answered questions about what he learned from the school visit, his impressions of Betsy DeVos’s start as U.S. education secretary, his fears about how the Trump administration might undermine the nation’s new education law, and more.

This transcript has been lightly edited.

What did you take away from the school visit today? Did it confirm things you suspected, or open your eyes to anything you hadn’t thought about?

It mostly confirmed what I have heard, which is there are a lot of kids in this school that are worried about what is going on with immigration in the country, and concerns about families being broken up, and a kind of a weight that is hanging over them as they try to study and prepare to go to college or a career after high school. That’s a heavy burden for a teenager to carry and for a middle schooler to carry. What I hope is we are able to send a more productive signal from Washington than one that’s been sent in the past few months.

Overall, how would you assess the job Betsy DeVos has done since she was confirmed as education secretary?

I’ve been very disappointed but not surprised. I think she really is an ideologue when it comes to our public schools. When she talks about education in this country, she does not project support, really, for public education. Just the other day, the Denver Public Schools was recognized by a group in Washington for being the No. 1 choice school district in America and she went to that ceremony and took the opportunity to denigrate the work in the Denver Public Schools without having been here. So that does not instill me with a great deal of confidence.

Anything in particular, anything else, that has been disappointing?

I read the other day that she said when asked about the results that had occurred in the Michigan schools and the Detroit schools, her answer to that was that she wasn’t a numbers person, and that she was just for choice. Choice is not choice for choice’s sake. Choice is about improving outcomes for kids and you cannot do that without real accountability that ensures that there is rigor, that we are moving towards rigor, for kids that are choosing schools in the system. I wish she would come to Denver and take a look at the work that’s been done here, both in terms of choice and in terms of trying to move our traditional schools forward.

You spent months trying to craft bipartisan compromise on the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law. Then the country elected a president who has pledged to eliminate the act’s accountability standards. What advice would you give to state officials and school districts about how to comply — or not comply — with the law’s mandates?

My advice is that we should avoid is a race to the bottom here. There was a change between No Child Left Behind and ESSA, and part of that change was letting go of some of that accountability from the federal government and placing the responsibility on the states. I’m disappointed by the signals the administration is sending. My advice would be to anybody that is in the business of implementing this is to make sure their state is a state that leads all other states in terms of the rigor and expectations we have for our kids. And states can do that. There’s no magic that says the federal government has to do it. But what I would like to see is states competing with each other to provide that rigor, rather than having a race to the bottom, which I think some people worry might be the result of the changes that have been made.

On the same subject, the State Board of Education yesterday signed off on Colorado’s state education plan under ESSA, to forward to Washington. One of the board members, Republican Steve Durham, had this to say: “Unless you’re poor or a minority or from another identity politics group, there is nothing in this plan that will benefit you. There’s nothing in this plan to improve the education of your children.” What do you think about his characterization and choice of words?

Well, I haven’t read the plan so I can’t speak directly to the plan. I can speak to the process, the development plan, which as far as I can tell was very far-reaching across all of Colorado and included constituencies both in urban areas and rural areas. And I think a lot of parents and educators were involved … I will withhold judgment on the final product, but I think the process struck me as a robust process. I don’t think (what Durham said) is helpful rhetoric. I think what we should be doing is making sure all kids in this state have a chance to have a great education no matter what circumstances they are born into. We’re a long way from that being true. Language that divides us is not helpful in trying to achieve that objective.

There are a lot of things in play in Colorado this year, including some local school board elections. Earlier this spring, the Colorado Education Association, in opposing a bill in Colorado that would boost charter school funding, branded it a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.” We are likely to see similar in school board races, including in Denver, where the incumbents all favor reforms you began and Tom Boasberg continued. What do you think of that message and tactic?

That is one of the very regrettable aspects of President Trump choosing Betsy DeVos to be the secretary of education, because if she becomes the face of reform in this country, if she becomes the face of change in this country, and that becomes an excuse for not changing and not reforming our schools or our school districts, that would be a real shame. I know what the content of the reforms are in the Denver Public Schools. I know what our starting point was and I know where we are today. And I am the first to say we have a long, long way to go. We are certainly not perfect, we certainly made mistakes, but we’ve created a lot of opportunity for a lot of people. I for one am not going to have that work thrown under the wheels of the bus of an ideologue in Washington who I think doesn’t reflect in any way the work that’s been done in Denver over now many years.

You take a bipartisan approach to your role in the Senate. What opportunities do you see — if any — to find bipartisan common ground on education issues?

Broadly speaking, even though I’ve spent a lot of my first term working with others in the other party, this is a moment where bipartisanship looks very hard to find. And the place I think with respect to education where I think we’re going to find it, and I’m optimistic about it, is higher education and the reauthorization of the higher ed bill. I’ve already had conversations with Lamar Alexander, who is the Republican chairman of the education committee. He and I worked very closely together on ESSA. And I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about access questions for higher ed: How to make higher ed more accessible, less expensive. We heard some of these questions today, not surprisingly at all, from students at Bruce Randolph. So I look forward to rolling up my sleeves with Chairman Alexander and seeing what we can do as a bipartisan way to create a higher ed bill that’s more responsive to the needs of kids that are living in the 21st century rather than in the 20th or 19th century.

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.