vying for vouchers

Could Donald Trump’s school voucher bonanza become a reality in New York City?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

When President-elect Donald Trump announced Betsy DeVos as his pick to lead the U.S. education department, one thing became clear: His stated interest in channeling public dollars into private schools would be championed by a full-throated believer in privatization.

But could Trump’s promise to launch a $20 billion national voucher program for low-income children — bolstered by billions in additional state funding — ever take hold in New York City?

The short answer is yes, according to education experts, though it would likely face a number of political, logistical, and legal obstacles that would make a large exodus of public school students into New York City’s private schools unlikely.

One central challenge is the state legislature, which probably wouldn’t approve the billions of dollars necessary to implement a competitive voucher program.

Under Trump’s proposal, which is light on details, states would have to pony up to make the program work. Assuming Trump finds $20 billion to spend on vouchers, perhaps by reallocating Title I funding, that would by itself yield less than $2,000 per student living under the federal poverty line nationwide. That leaves much of the funding burden on the states — so if the legislature refused to support the program, it would limit the program’s reach (after all, $2,000 wouldn’t buy you much private school).

A voucher program in New York “would require a lot of political support, more so than is here now,” said Aaron Pallas, an education professor at Teachers College. He noted that the state legislature has even refused to approve a much softer measure to make certain donations to private schools tax deductible. “It’s unlikely a DeVos appointment is going to change that political calculus,” he said.

The state legislature would likely also have to overcome an unusual alliance: politically influential teacher unions and charter operators who might unite over the fear of losing public funding.

But even if the legislature did fund the program, state law could bar that money from going to the vast majority of the city’s private schools. That’s because the state constitution in New York — and roughly three quarters of all states — currently prohibits funneling public money into religious schools, according to David Bloomfield, an education law expert at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

In New York City, 616 of the city’s 810 private schools are religious (76 percent), according to state data, meaning the pool of schools that could accept vouchers may be limited. (An important caveat, Bloomfield noted, is the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal funding can be used on religious schools, leaving open the possibility that parents could use federal money to send their kids to religious schools. Still, federal funding alone is unlikely to give parents enough purchasing power to compete in the education free market Trump’s proposal envisions.)

Even if a voucher program cleared all of those roadblocks, “There would also be a capacity issue,” said Sean Corcoran, an education and economics professor at New York University. “To my knowledge, there are not a lot of private schools with extra space.”

Despite those obstacles, however, a voucher program in New York City is far from impossible. For one thing, there are lots of private schools (roughly 20 percent of the city’s students already attend them). And vouchers have even been tried, to some extent: In the late 1990s New York City experimented with foundation-funded vouchers, though they did not produce dramatic gains in student achievement.

“I think it’s actually more of a threat than most people think,” Bloomfield said. “Even without a state supplement, [federal dollars] could provide a subsidy for families who are looking to opt out of the public school system.”

Without specifics about how much the vouchers could be worth, it’s hard to predict the extent to which they could incentivize families to make different education decisions. But, Bloomfield said, if the Trump administration were to reduce Title I funding in favor of vouchers, the city could see a reduction in the “quality of public schools [that would] drive more students to the private market.”

Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies education inequality, echoed that thought. “Even a moderately funded voucher program would give parents some options,” she said. “I don’t think we can just write it off as not plausible.”

Though Potter noted vouchers are “highly unlikely” to get much political support in New York City, the effects of a modest program could be noticeable.

“The biggest risk of a private school voucher program is the public accountability that ensures that parents are really getting access to quality options, and ensuring kids of different backgrounds have a chance to learn together falls by the wayside,” Potter said.

“There would be a lot of political opposition to it, but as with [the Obama administration’s] Race to the Top, there are a lot of things states will do for the money.”

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.”