School Choice

This Colorado conservative is taking a bigger role in expanding school choice across the nation

Michael Fields addresses a crowd at the Colorado Capitol. (Photo courtesy Americans For Prosperity)

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.

Why now?

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.

Try again

State education officials question another batch of Success Academy charter renewals

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

This July, New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up for next year — with a little charter school drama brewing on the side.

Reigniting a debate that flared in April, the board is poised to send a set of Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, the network’s authorizer, rather than approving them.

The state also plans to release a revised draft of its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday, according to state officials. The Regents are not planning to vote on the state’s revised learning standards, though they are scheduled to discuss them.

The majority of July’s meeting will be devoted to a public “retreat,” which includes discussions about school integration, graduation requirements and principal standards. These conversations will likely provide insights into what policymakers are interested in tackling next school year.

Success Academy renewals (again)

In April, the state’s Board of Regents sent a slate of Success Academy charter renewals back to SUNY, arguing the authorizer had renewed them too soon.

The same appears poised to happen at July’s meeting. There are eight Success Academy schools tentatively approved for full, five-year renewals by SUNY along with one other city charter, the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning. State officials recommend sending the renewals back to SUNY with comments.

The move is largely symbolic, since SUNY has the final word, but it caused some debate last spring. After the Regents meeting in April, the decision to send the renewals back to SUNY gave rise to dueling op-eds written by Robert Pondiscio and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The board is not scheduled to discuss SUNY’s recent proposal to allow some of its charter schools to certify their own teachers, though that announcement drew criticism from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa earlier this month.

A whole new law

New York state education officials are also in the final stages of completing their plan to evaluate and improve schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law.

The state released its draft plan in May and state officials said they will present revisions at Monday’s meeting. The final vote is expected in September and state officials said they will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education later that month.

The revisions are not yet public, but questions have already been raised about how the state will assess transfer schools, which are geared toward students who have fallen behind in high school, and how it will display information about schools to the public.

“We’re going to be looking at the dashboard and what represents a [good] set of indicators,” said Regent Judith Johnson. “What indicators do we need as measures of professionalism, measures of assessment, measures of success?”

The board could also discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s comments on other states’ plans that have already been submitted. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team surprised states by taking a hard line in initial feedback.

New learning standards?

There is no vote scheduled on new learning standards at this meeting, but the board will hear an update on the process.

The state has received 238 comments on the Next Generation math standards and 252 responses about English, according to a Regents document. The document suggests they are still working on early-grade reading standards and clarifying how they will apply to students with disabilities and to English learners.

This work is part of the lengthy process of revising the Common Core learning standards and unveiling them as the Next Generation Learning Standards. So far, state officials have released a draft set of revised standards, revised them again and given them a new name.

When they unveiled the revisions (to the earlier proposals) in May, state officials said they expected to officially approve new standards in June. But they have yet to come to a consensus and now expect the final version to go before the board in September.

Integration

At the Regents’ last meeting, state officials planted a stake in the ground on the topic of integration, calling New York schools the most segregated in the country and kicking off a preliminary discussion on how to integrate schools. The conversation came soon after the city unveiled its own diversity plan, which some critics found disappointing.

But the state’s discussion left many questions unanswered. During Monday’s discussion, it’s possible some of the Regents’ positions will become clearer.

Graduation

The Regents have been working to reform graduation requirements for years. Last year, the board took some steps in that direction when it allowed students to earn a work-readiness credential in place of a final Regents exam and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

At July’s meeting, the topic is slated for a broader discussion, prompting the question: Could a more substantial rethinking of what it means to earn a New York state diploma be on the way?

Regent Roger Tilles, who has been active in discussions of changes to graduation requirements, suggested that anything could be on the table, including an end to using Regents exams as graduation requirements.

“I’m not sure I know exactly where we’ll end up,” Tilles said. “I know where I don’t want to end up: where we are now.”

new chapter

Frosty relationship thaws between parents group Memphis Lift and Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Leaders of Memphis Lift take literally Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's call to "lock arms and work together" following Hopson's presentation to the parent advocacy group on Monday evening.

When Memphis Lift launched two years ago, leaders of Shelby County Schools questioned the motives and methods behind the group’s parent advocacy, including its early paid work to canvass neighborhoods about the district’s low-performing schools.

But this week, the two entities appeared to turn a page in their often contentious relationship. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson paid a visit on Monday night as part of the group’s monthly speaker series, and the organization welcomed him warmly.

“When you have the challenges we have here in Memphis, we have to lock arms and work together,” Hopson told about 100 people in attendance. “At the end of day, there’s an undeniable correlation between parental involvement and achievement.” 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hopson talks about the need for equitable funding and parental involvement.

Hopson’s decision to engage Memphis Lifters stands in stark contrast to late 2015 when he questioned whether the parent group was truly independent — or just a mouthpiece for the state-run Achievement School District, a turnaround program that takes control of struggling schools and usually converts them to charter schools. Those suspicions prompted Shelby County Schools to deny the ASD’s request for student information out of concern that the material would be given to Memphis Lift, whose orange-shirted members were going door-to-door to talk with families about local schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

But things have changed a lot. Tennessee’s Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings this year while adding new tools for turnaround work. Memphis Lift, which launched in mid-2015 amid questions about its legitimacy, has demonstrated staying power by developing its grassroots base and leadership. And the need to increase parental involvement was cited as a priority at community meetings held last fall across the district.

“When we first started, (SCS leaders) were saying we worked for the ASD, then charters,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director for Memphis Lift. “Now, I think they get we’re here for all children. … Dorsey coming to speak is a very exciting moment for us.”

Carpenter said a turning point came this spring when Hopson visited their offices in north Memphis, where the group hosts programs to educate parents about policy and how to get involved in their children’s schools.

“I think Dorsey was surprised by what we were doing here,” Carpenter said. “He asked what he needed to do to reach more parents, and I told him he needed to be more accessible. We only saw him at school board meetings.” 

Hopson made himself available Monday night by speaking about Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan to raise reading levels and graduation rates and develop career readiness for students. During the two-hour exchange, he also took questions from the crowd.

The superintendent emphasized the need for more pre-K seats and for third-graders to read on grade level. He said the district can’t do its job without parental involvement and encouraged Memphis Lift to advocate for more dollars for Memphis schools and for high-needs students.

“All parents and advocacy groups should be aligned on a few things — number one being equitable funding for kids,” Hopson said. “This is a powerful group, if you show up and say here’s what we want, (elected leaders are) not going to ignore it.”