hard choices

New York City’s charter school leaders are not rallying behind school choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Here’s why.

Angel Martinez, a member of the Parent Action Committee, protests in front of Eva Moskowitz's home. Moskowitz, who heads the charter chain Success Academy, recently led Ivanka Trump on a tour of a Success school.

When news broke that President-elect Trump tapped school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary, New York City’s charter school sector was relatively quiet. With the exception of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who tweeted she was “thrilled,” local charter school leaders and advocates have mostly kept to themselves.

That might seem surprising in a city where more than 100,000 students are educated in charter schools. But DeVos’ brand of school choice, which has so far has focused on fighting for private school vouchers and less charter oversight, is very different from the type than exists in New York City — and some local charter leaders appear wary of it.

“I think a great many charter supporters, and indeed charter founders, are deeply troubled by the idea of vouchers,” said Steve Wilson, CEO of the New York-based Ascend charter school network. “I would venture most charter school founders are liberal Democrats who are committed to social justice and would be very troubled by free market mechanisms.”

The distinction between charter schools and vouchers is key for Wilson. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run institutions. Vouchers, which can fund private schools, are much more radical, Wilson said, and lumping the two together does a disservice to charter schools.

“I would say that education choice is a double-edged sword,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link, a charter elementary school. “We as the charter school sector and the education community need to understand the damage that choice can cause.”

Evangelista and others in the sector also disagree with DeVos’ apparent stance on charter school regulation, which she fought in her home state of Michigan.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, did not comment publicly on DeVos, but he wrote an op-ed after Trump’s election on the importance of maintaining strong charter school oversight, instead of “simply growing the sector for growth’s sake.”

“A high-quality charter school sector is only possible when sound policy takes precedence over ideology,” Merriman wrote. “The bedrock of chartering isn’t that the marketplace or even choice will make good schools, as some Republicans, perhaps Trump included, seem to think.”

The DeVos family poured over a million dollars into legislative races when lawmakers were considering more charter school oversight in Detroit. Her work drew criticism for creating a “Wild West” policy environment and allowing failing charters to survive.

The charter sector in Michigan, which has an unprecedented number of for-profit charter schools, looks nothing like the sector in New York. In Michigan, there are many charter-school authorizers, some of which are strict while others are more lax, said Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative-learning Thomas Fordham Institute.

“There is a sense that in Detroit, nobody is in charge,” Petrilli said. That contrasts with New York, which has a small number of authorizers focused on school quality, he said.

Having a school-choice advocate associated with Trump also puts New York City’s sector in a bind. Particularly in the wake of the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, some in the sector are trying to win progressive support, rather than squander it.

New York City’s charter schools serve many low-income students of color, some of whom feel anxious and angry about the rhetoric Trump used during his campaign. Eva Moskowitz’s pledge to support Trump’s education efforts drew protesters outside her Harlem home.

“Some of it is probably guilt by association,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “You still have a president-elect who is viewed by many as having egged on and promoted racist and otherwise offensive points of view among his supporters.”

Still, some national and regional charter school groups have expressed support for DeVos. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sent a congratulatory release, and Andrea Rogers, New York state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, sent a statement saying she is “glad to see another charter supporter take the reins.”

But for most local organizations and schools, there seems to be little upside in embracing her. While the federal government can incentivize policy decisions, as it did with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, most important charter school decisions are decided at the state level. And since some charter schools receive grant money from the federal government, they may have an added incentive to steer clear of messy political arguments. If charter schools stay quiet now, they may benefit later, said Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation.

“There might be some political savviness right now to just holding back and preserving a place as a potential third way when big battles arise over school choice and privatization,” Potter said. “It could turn out that the big third way could be charter schools as way of expanding school choice.”

Betsy DeVos

Six things to know about Indiana’s school voucher program, a possible model for ed sec nominee Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that is integrated by design and accepts taxpayer funded vouchers.

Philanthropist Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, did not succeed in getting a school voucher program off the ground in her home state of Michigan.

But her advocacy helped influence the program in neighboring Indiana, which is expansive, entrenched — and could be a model if Trump and DeVos move forward with trying to push a national voucher program.

Here are six important things to know about vouchers in Indiana:

1. Indiana’s program is the biggest in the country — costing local districts students and funding.

It allows thousands of families to have thousands of dollars to send their kids to private schools that they would otherwise have to pay for, or win scholarships to attend. The number of students using vouchers rose from 3,911 in 2011, when the program launched, to 32,686 in 2016.

That total makes Indiana’s voucher program the largest of any state, with nearly 3 percent of kids using public funds to pay private school tuition.

If a public school student applies for and receives a voucher to attend a private school, they take their state funding with them, so districts and schools where those students might otherwise have enrolled shoulder the cost. Voucher advocates argue that schools can handle the loss because they have fewer students to educate. But critics say that isn’t the reality of how school budgets work: If a class loses two of 20 students, its teacher doesn’t see her salary reduced by 10 percent.

Funding issues have fueled criticism of the program. In 2013, the Indiana State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit to stop it, arguing in part that the program caused public dollars to be spent improperly on religious institutions. The Indiana Supreme Court dismissed the suit, but the union has continued to make the argument. And even Jennifer McCormick, the small-district superintendent who, with DeVos support, unseated Democratic State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, has expressed concerns about programs that divert money from public schools.

2. Indiana’s program looks a lot like what DeVos says she wants.

Trump’s proposal is for low-income families to be eligible for vouchers, but his vice president, former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has supported vouchers for middle-income families, too. DeVos is more in Pence’s camp, and her political action committee, the American Federation for Children, has poured $1.3 million into local voucher advocacy efforts.

Indiana’s eligibility is unusually wide open. Students who get vouchers don’t only come from families near the poverty line (as in North Carolina), have special needs (as is a requirement in several states, including Florida), or be zoned for low-performing schools or districts (as in Cleveland).

The only restriction is family income, but even there Indiana’s rules are generous. A family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive a voucher of up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. Since 2013, families earning up to $89,725 per year have also been eligible — but they get only half the state aid their district would receive.

3. It is increasingly serving students from middle-class families.

A growing portion of Indiana voucher users are from middle-class families, and growth has been greatest among suburban families.

In 2016, 22 percent of voucher students were from the suburbs, compared to 16 percent in 2011. The portion of voucher users living in rural areas also rose slightly during that time — even though vouchers are often impractical in areas where there are not enough students to sustain multiple schools.

As the proportion of urban families using vouchers fell, so did the proportion of students of color. During the first year, black students — who are 12 percent of the state’s students — made up about a quarter of voucher students in the state. That number is down to 13 percent now. Hispanic student enrollment is down as well, to 18 percent, even as Hispanic student enrollment has shot up across the state in the last five years.

In total, 60 percent of Indiana voucher users are white, and about 31 percent are from middle-income families — not exactly the student population that struggles most in the state’s schools.

4. It has steered students away from public schools — but also probably helped families make the choices they were going to make anyway.

A rationale for vouchers — and one DeVos has offered — is that they let families escape low-performing public schools that aren’t helping their kids. But over time, the proportion of Indiana voucher users moving from public schools has fallen sharply. In 2011, just 9 percent of voucher users had never before gone to public school. That was true for more than half of students using vouchers in 2016.

Another question is whether vouchers allow families to choose private schools they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The evidence in Indiana is mixed: Since the program launched, private school enrollment has grown — but less rapidly than voucher use, suggesting that some new students attend private school because of vouchers, but other voucher recipients would attend private school regardless.

And as is often the case when vouchers are introduced, religious schools have benefitted heavily. Vouchers have allowed some Catholic schools to stave off closure, and parents who use vouchers say the opportunity for their children to get religious instruction at school was the most important reason they chose their schools. Most of the non-religious schools that accept vouchers cost far more than the cost of the voucher, making them unaffordable for low-income families.

Critics of vouchers say the data points add up to a problematic picture. “How many of the kids that are actually receiving vouchers were ever going to go to a public school anyway?” Teresa Meredith, head of the state teachers association, said in June. “I think it shows that it’s really not helping the kids that it was promised to help.”

5. The program has more regulations than DeVos might like.

A hallmark of Devos’s philosophy appears to be opposition to regulation of schools — she recently worked to oppose added oversight for charter schools in Detroit. Ordinarily, private schools in Indiana face very few state restrictions, but schools that accept vouchers must act in some ways like their public school counterparts.

First, they have to get approval from the state to accept vouchers. Once approved, they must be accredited, give the state’s annual test, known as ISTEP; evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores; and receive A-F accountability grades. They’re also vulnerable to consequences if their students consistently post low test scores — including losing their ability to accept vouchers from new students.

The regulations didn’t bother Republican lawmakers because many Indiana private schools already had accreditation and met some of the other requirements to be able to compete in the state’s high school athletics association, according to Republican Rep. Bob Behning.

Voucher schools aren’t allowed to censor materials related to American history and must maintain libraries that include the U.S. Constitution and other documents. (Indiana’s standards do not require teaching contraception, an issue for some private schools in other states with vouchers.)

6. Vouchers haven’t helped students learn more.

One argument that voucher proponents make is that families can choose the schools that are going to serve their children best. But across the country, a growing body of research suggests that vouchers have limited or no effect on student learning. Locally, a new new long-term study out of Indianapolis, done by researchers at Notre Dame University, found that students who switched from traditional public schools to Catholic schools actually did worse in math.

One possible explanation: Vouchers cause students to change schools when they otherwise would not. “All research that we know of is pretty convergent on the conclusion that mobility for students is bad,” said Ashlyn Nelson, an education researcher and professor at Indiana University.

Choice and consequences

Could school vouchers come to Colorado under a Trump administration? It’s a long shot.

Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate headlined the 2016 Western Conservative Summit at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Donald Trump’s selection of conservative Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead the federal education department has spurred plenty of speculation about whether the new administration can make good on a campaign promise to fund a nationwide school voucher program.

DeVos is an adamant supporter of vouchers and has spent her personal wealth to champion advocates of school choice including some in Colorado, such as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma.

Gardner, who supports vouchers, received $5,200 from DeVos during his 2014 Senate run.

Trump’s plan, outlined in one of his few education policy speeches, pledged $20 billion of existing federal dollars to be sent to the states as grants for low-income students to use at private schools.

Details have yet to surface, and likely won’t for several more months. And while it would be a significant uphill battle for that plan to become federal law and an even greater feat for vouchers to become a reality in Colorado, it isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility.

Here’s how a Trump administration bring vouchers to Colorado, a state that has wrestled with the thorny subject for nearly two decades.

First, Congress would have to act.

That’s a big first step, especially since lawmakers in Washington just passed bipartisan legislation that rewrote the nation’s education laws.

“Lawmakers used a lot of time and effort in Congress to write the Every Student Succeeds Act,” said Michelle Exstrom, a program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She added that many Republican lawmakers walked away happy and are likely to turn their attention to other issues, such as health care reform.

Even if there was interest in passing new legislation that would authorize a federal voucher program, the money would need to come from somewhere. As Education Week pointed out, lawmakers probably won’t be in keen on repurposing any current federal funds spent on education.

But let’s pretend everything goes as planned in Washington. Then what?

For a federal voucher plan to fly in Colorado, it would have to meet at least two basic legal requirements: First, the program would have to be voluntary for local school districts. Second, no state funds could be used to fund vouchers to religious schools (at least for now).

James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case.
PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case.

Both requirements stem from previous state Supreme Court decisions on vouchers.

The first decision was handed down in 2004 after Republican Gov. Bill Owens and a Republican legislature tried to create what would have been the largest statewide voucher system at the time. The plan would have allowed students in 11 low-performing school districts to use 85 percent of the state’s per pupil funding amount to go to a private school.

The Colorado Supreme Court, however, ruled that the state could not mandate how school districts use the local tax revenue that funds their schools. That, the court said, would violate the state’s constitutionally protected local control of schools. (The state’s per pupil funding amount is made of taxes collected by the state and local counties.)

The second decision comes from a more recent Supreme Court decision about the Douglas County School District’s voucher plan. The Supreme Court ruled the program was unconstitutional. While four justices said the program was unconstitutional, only three said it was violated a part of the constitution that forbids state funds to be used at private religious schools.

Eric Hall, who represented the Douglas County School District, argues that creates some ambiguity about whether Colorado could use state funds to match federal dollars.

“There isn’t a precedential ruling on whether (the constitution) prohibits tax dollars being spent at private religious schools,” he said. “That will have to be ironed out at some point.”

But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said he believes the constitution is clear on the matter.

“I would imagine the state constitution would remain a bar for the state participating in a plan that sends state money to private religious schools,” he said.

The Douglas County School District has appealed the state Supreme Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So let’s say Trump’s plan doesn’t require states to kick in money and that school districts could volunteer for the program. What still has to happen to get vouchers in Colorado?

The state education department likely would be responsible for running the program. But before the department would participate, it would seek input from the State Board of Education, the legislature and the governor, said Patrick Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the department.

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)
Douglas County parents protest the district’s voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

“We would not move forward with anything that would be illegal or go against their wishes,” Chapman said.

While the governor has never taken a position on vouchers, a split legislature in which Democrats control the House and a state board soon to be controlled by Democrats by one vote does not bode well for voucher supporters.

Rebecca McClellan, a Democrat from Centennial whose recent victory will flip the balance of partisan control on the state board, campaigned on protecting “neighborhood schools” and opposing vouchers.

“I do not favor voucher schemes that drain funding from our public schools and make an already challenging financial picture that much harder,” McClellan said at a candidate forum in Aurora.

Douglas County makes up a small portion of the district McClellan will represent.