For the past two years as Colorado state director of the conservative political group Americans For Prosperity, Michael Fields has advocated at the statehouse and the ballot box for free-market policies, including expanding charter schools.
Now, Fields is taking on a larger role with the organization, which grew out of the Tea Party movement and is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.
Fields’s new role helping Americans For Prosperity push school choice nationwide comes as the nation is having a renewed conversation about the issue. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have pitched a federal school choice program, which could provide vouchers to some students to use for private school tuition.
We asked Fields, a Teach for America alum who taught in the Denver suburb of Aurora, about his thoughts on the plan and what’s next for charter schools in Colorado and across the nation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about your new gig.
What we’re doing is engaging in long-term policy battles nationwide. Often AFP would work on a single ballot issue, or campaign. Rarely are we — or anyone — educating people about those broader issues.
For example, one of the issues we’re working on is educating people on education savings accounts, which were just created in Arizona and Nevada. Here in Colorado, we’re going to be doing a campaign on school choice in general. Support for school choice is pretty high: Can we get that higher? Some people still don’t know that charter schools are public schools — that you don’t have to pay tuition to attend.
We’re really focusing on broad policies, not fighting for a specific issue. We’re trying to change people’s opinion over the longer term.
For a good amount of time, conservatives have had control over governors’ mansions and state legislatures. They’ve begun to pass policies that we would say are good. But they’re under attack all the time. People are uneducated about them. These big reforms have passed, and we need to get to a point where we’ve educated people enough where we don’t have to have big battles. We’re a long-term policy place. We’re not about partisan politics. So we need to be more coordinated on educating people on the issues we care about.
You say you’re nonpartisan, but when was the last time Americans for Prosperity supported a Democrat, or a Democratic idea?
We support conservative policies.
Here in Colorado, we’d thank all the Democrats who voted for the charter school funding equalization bill. And if you follow us, you know we hold Republicans accountable.
There are a lot of conservative Democrats in Southern states that support conservative policies. So we’ll give them a shout-out. I don’t know if that’s helpful to their career. But we’ll work with them. We want policy majorities regardless of the party.
Why is education reform important to AFP?
Education is the starting block for the rest of society. And right now, we’re creating a two-tiered society. Some people get a great education, they’re lined up for a job. But there is a whole group of people who have the deck stacked against them. It’s harder than it’s ever been to get from the bottom to the top in America.
Details on a federal choice program are still scarce. But what do you think of the Trump administration’s plans so far?
It will be interesting to see what comes out of it. They’re emphasizing that states should be driving this. Most of these issues will happen at the state level. And states are the best avenue to define what the education system looks like.
DeVos was criticized for comments she made regarding states creating voucher programs that could discriminate against some students, especially gay and transgender students, and students with special needs. What did you make of her comments and the backlash?
I think the backlash wasn’t that surprising. Look, there are certain federal standards around discrimination that are going to be upheld regardless. There is certain discrimination that shouldn’t happen. Anytime you’re taking federal money, that changes the ballgame.
There are two major philosophies in school choice: market-based and quality. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a strong proponent of the market-based approach, with little regulation over what schools open or close. Education reformers in Denver have argued that they have a role in ensuring quality schools are opened and bad ones are shut down. Which philosophy is yours more closely aligned to?
It’s both. You do need options, but you need quality control. You just can’t let anything go. That’s where school accountability comes in. If a charter school is not doing its job, it should be shut down, just like a district-run school should. Every year a kid is not getting a good education, he’s falling behind.
One of the critiques of school choice is that with competition there are ultimately winners and losers. What do you say to kids who go to a new school and it didn’t work?
The thing I’m concerned about is having one option that isn’t working. So if you’re in a district that is blocking charters, that isn’t open to anything else, and all you can do is send your child to a failing school, I think that’s the worst-case scenario. Competition means that there are going to be some losers. But they should be shut down and the kids should be moved to better options as quickly as possible.
What do you say to people who argue that charter schools aren’t held to the same standards?
I’m on the board of a charter school. I know we’re taking the same tests. We have to follow open-record laws. We have to do the civil rights paperwork. It is a public school that must meet the same standards. If you’re involved in a charter school, you know that. We also have additional challenges. For example, we have to manage our own money — we don’t have a district to float us money. We have to put out a good product to get kids to show up, to get parents to show up.
While charter schools are increasingly serving black and Latino students, charter schools are increasingly segregated. What should school choice advocates be thinking about regarding integration?
Part of it is that neighborhoods are this way — segregated. Whatever that neighborhood looks like, that school is going to look like. I grew up in Chicago. Every neighborhood was different.
For my family, diversity was very important. So, we were sent to a school that was like our family was — very diverse. (Fields is biracial.)
The school I’m on the board at is one-third white, one-third black and one-third Latino. A slight majority are low-income. Choice allows that diversity. And I think that it encourages diversity even more because you’re able to get out of your neighborhood.
But that doesn’t always play out that way. Here in Colorado, our charter schools are slightly more segregated than district-run schools.
It’s a societal question. I don’t think this is something can be fixed by the school system alone.
What do you see for the future of charter schools here in Colorado?
One thing is looking at exclusive charting authority — especially now that we have equal funding. We have districts, especially districts that are low-performing, that are trying to block charter schools from developing there. I think you’re going to have more push back against charters. And charters are going to have to go through the appeal process with the State Board of Education.
I think accountability will continue to be a piece on both the charter schools and the district side. Are we making sure that both district and charter schools are being held to the same standard?
What about charter school policy nationwide?
One of things I’m learning with this new role is just how diverse charter school policies are. Kentucky just started charter schools. Colorado’s had them for almost 25 years. It really varies state-to-state. That’s why I don’t think one federal choice program is the best thing for everybody. Different states are at different stages.