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.

charter politics

Betsy DeVos to charter school leaders: Your schools ‘are not the one cure-all’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In an address to charter school advocates, leaders, and teachers in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared to chide charter supporters who oppose her push to expand private school choice.

She also criticized rules designed to ensure charter quality, but that — in her telling — had turned into red tape, stifling innovation.

“Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education,” she said at the conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a cure-all in education.”

Her remarks hinted at growing divides within the school choice movement. Charter school advocates in New York, California, and Denver have been cool to the idea of expanding vouchers. The broader group has splintered on other issues, too: accountability for charter schools, for-profit charters, President Trump’s budget, and issues beyond education.

On the question of how to measure school quality, DeVos continued to send mixed messages. On the one hand, she praised the National Alliance for having “proven that quality and choice can coexist.” On the other hand, she criticized efforts to ensure that schools are high-quality through “500-page charter school applications.”

This touches on a longstanding debate about how much regulation charter schools need — and who should provide it.

Research released earlier this week showed that there is significant variation in test score performance among different charter school networks, and that for-profit and virtual schools lag behind. DeVos has supported both types of schools.

“A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right,” said DeVos. “It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”

Other research has found that when charter schools are closed because of poor performance, student achievement increases. Yet market-oriented choice advocates often suggest that parents are in the best position to decide which school is a good fit for their child, and test scores shouldn’t be the sole basis for those decisions.

When asked during a brief question and answer session with Derrell Bradford — a supporter of school choice from the group 50CAN — where she stood, DeVos did not offer a specific answer.

“Our focus should be on not choice for choice’s sake, but choice because parents are demanding something different for their children,” she said. “For every year that they don’t have that opportunity, their child is missing out.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president for the National Alliance, said that if a charter school is not meeting academic performance goals, “it should absolutely close,” though emphasized that the process should be done carefully with the needs of parents in mind.

She sees DeVos’s position as slightly different than her group’s.

“My sense is she’s probably a little more on the ‘choice for choice’ [side] than the Alliance is,” Wilkins told Chalkbeat.

Greg Richmond, the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a prominent advocate for holding charter schools accountable for their academic results, said in an interview that he wasn’t sure of DeVos’s position on the topic.

“Clearly we’re in the robust accountability camp,” he said in an interview. But of DeVos, “I haven’t figured [DeVos] out yet.”

In her speech, DeVos also referenced a recent blog post by Rick Hess, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, whom she called a friend. “Many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats – a new education establishment,” she said.

Although she spoke passionately about helping low-income students escape struggling schools, DeVos only briefly mentioned President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, the brunt of which critics say would fall on poor students and their families.

“While some of you have criticized the President’s budget – which you have every right to do – it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States,” DeVos said. “It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.”

Some charter school teachers say the budget would hurt their students.

“It’s really disturbing that the same people she’s claiming she wants to help and be an advocate for are the one’s that she’s hurting,” said Carlene Carpenter, a charter school teacher in Chicago and a member of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re hearing one thing, but in actuality what’s really happening with these budget cuts is the after-school programs are being eliminated.”

The cuts are still a proposal, and conventional wisdom in D.C. is that the plan has no shot at getting through Congress.

DeVos reiterated her view that money is not the key to improving schools, though recent research suggests more resources do in fact help schools get better. She also agreed with the idea that charter schools are not equitably funded.

DeVos’s remarks come as the National Alliance toes a careful line. The group’s president, Nina Rees, addressed that head-on in remarks on Monday.

“Let me tackle the big elephant in the room,” she said. “Donald Trump.”

“We can disagree with President Trump and disagree loudly when we believe it’s the right thing to do, but to ignore the impact of a big increase in funding at the federal level would be irresponsible,” Rees said. “It would put the interest of adults and political activists ahead of the needs of our schools.”

Rees has faced pressure from some charter school leaders after a number of them wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing the Trump budget. The National Alliance initially offered unmitigated praise for the proposal, though has since criticized aspects of it.

“Accepting the president’s agenda on charter schools doesn’t connect us to his full agenda,” Rees said.

a charter divide

Why for-profit charter schools are going out of style with some education reform leaders

Marshall Tuck is the last person you would expect to say it’s time to limit charter schools.

Tuck, a Democratic candidate for California schools superintendent, once oversaw a network of charter schools in Los Angeles and was heavily backed by the state’s charter lobby when he ran for (and narrowly lost) the post in 2014.

That’s why it’s surprising that one of Tuck’s first major policy announcements in his latest bid was a push to ban for-profit charter schools in California, a top priority of teachers unions.

“Educators — whether at district or charter public schools — can agree: public schools must serve students, not shareholders,” Tuck wrote. “Profit has no place in our public schools, and I urge politicians in Sacramento to make that the law.”

This fresh hostility toward for-profit charter schools extends beyond California. Across the country, more left-of-center charter school advocates are distancing themselves from for-profit charter schools. Some want to prohibit them outright.

Jeff Henig, a Columbia professor, sees this as a symptom of a broader rift, driven in part by the election of Donald Trump and appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has backed private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

“What may account for why this is becoming more publicly talked about is this re-opening what was always a strange-bedfellow coalition,” he said. “That cleavage is widening now, with the for-profits seeing a chance under Trump and DeVos to jump back ahead in the game and the nonprofit, progressive group worrying that they’ll be tarred by the bad-apple stories.”

In most places, charter schools are required to be run by nonprofit boards, but operations and management can be turned over to for-profit companies, often known as education-management organizations or EMOs, though some states bar this practice. As of 2014, about one in five charter students attended a school run for profit.

For years, the charter school movement was characterized by a relatively amicable alliance between progressive and conservative education reformers, with disagreements about vouchers and for-profit charters largely playing out behind the scenes.

“Those folks for many years traveled together because their main battle was against the unions and traditional public schools, and the stickiness of the status quo,” Henig said. “But there never was a meeting of the minds really among all of the charter proponents.”

For progressive charter advocates, keeping an arm’s length from for-profit charter schools may be smart politics.

“[California] is a very blue state, and an anti-for-profit position is almost certainly a majority or strong plurality opinion,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, about Tuck specifically. “Especially given current national politics and the views of Betsy DeVos, this position allows him to separate himself from unpopular folks in Washington.”

Nick Melvoin, a successful candidate for L.A. school board who was endorsed by pro-charter groups, joined Tuck’s push. “We need to pass this legislation banning for-profit schools to combat the radical anti-public education agenda of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump,” he wrote.

Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform told Chalkbeat in a recent interview, “We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools.”

John King, the former secretary of education and founder of a charter school in Boston, expressed a similar view.

“I would distinguish between the role that high-performing public charters can play in a strong public education system as opposed to vouchers and for-profit charters. I believe public dollars should go to public schools with public accountability,” King, who is currently president and CEO of EdTrust, told Chalkbeat.

“In New York, when we raised the charter cap in 2010 we banned new for-profit charters,” he added. “That seemed right to me. I would be fine with other states taking a similar approach.”

To those who favor a free-market approach, including many advocates of school vouchers, the criticism of for-profit schools is a mistake that could limit options for students who need them.

“I’m from the Malcolm X school — by any means necessary,” said Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school choice group that Betsy DeVos used to lead. “I don’t rule out any learning modality that can help a kid.” (Chavous is on the board of K12, a for-profit virtual school operator.)

DeVos echoed that view last week in testimony before the U.S. Senate.

“Whether it’s a for-profit managed institution or a not-for-profit, if students are achieving and parents are making those choices on behalf of their children, I think those are the better measures to be oriented around,” DeVos said.

So how strong is the case against for-profit charters?

On one hand, studies comparing for-profit schools to nonprofits and traditional public schools in the same area don’t find consistent differences in performance, as measured by test scores. Nationally, as well as in Florida and Michigan, for-profit charter schools perform comparably or even a bit better.

For-profit charters do spend significantly more on administrative costs — and less on classroom instruction — than nonprofits according to one recent study, consistent with concerns about profiteering. But the authors said there is little evidence that those schools were less effective or efficient as a result.

On the other hand, the largely for-profit sector of virtual charter operators have harmed student achievement — often dramatically, according to multiple studies. They have also proven politically influential, in a way that critics say helps keep struggling schools open.

An extensive analysis of charter schools in North Carolina found that the practice of contracting management out to for-profit companies likely violates the law. The nonprofit KIPP charter schools in the state, by contrast, had governance practices that were “thorough, correct, and in compliance.”

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor and frequent charter school critic who has examined financial malfeasance in the sector, said the distinctions between the sectors weren’t always clear.

There are “bad actors on both sides,” he said, “but most good actors [are] on [the] nonprofit side.”