Betsy DeVos

From ‘passionate’ hands-on advocate’ to ‘everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America’: The education world reacts to Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

What does the education world think about Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist and voucher advocate whom Donald Trump picked as his education secretary nominee?

Some groups, mostly ones that have included vouchers in their vision for school choice, are lavishing praise on DeVos in statements that began pouring in shortly after Trump’s day-before-Thanksgiving announcement. Others are tempering their congratulations with questions.

And many are expressing deep concern — about the racist rhetoric that fueled Trump’s campaign and has characterized some reaction to his election, the impact of Trump’s education agenda on students of color and immigrant students, and the future of public education as an institution.

Here are excerpts from the reaction that has come in so far. We’ll keep updating this list — so please send perspectives we’ve missed to [email protected]

Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank: “Betsy is a passionate, hands-on advocate for school reform. She is a true champion for the competition of ideas. She pursues innovative solutions in education by engaging all players, from policymakers to reformers to parents and community leaders. Her strong conviction that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue comes at a pivotal time, when Washington is in urgent need of productive cooperation.”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Excellence in Education counts DeVos as a board member: “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”

Peter Cunningham, the editor of Education Post who formerly worked in the Obama administration: “Betsy DeVos is a well-known proponent of school choice, but her home state of Michigan, where she has played an active role in expanding choice, has a mixed record on charter school authorizing and accountability. … We are hopeful that, under her leadership, the U.S. Department of Education will continue to protect children of every race, income level, background, and ability by speaking out against discrimination, intolerance and bullying, by encouraging high standards, and by demanding absolute transparency around results and robust systems of accountability.”

Co-founders of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence, Sydney Morris and Evan Stone: “As Ms. DeVos has never been a teacher, school leader, or school system administrator, we call on her to listen to and include the ideas and voices of educators in the critical decisions she will make that will help shape the future of education in the United States. … We hope that, if confirmed as Education Secretary, Ms. DeVos will leverage this important position to uplift — not dismantle — our public schools.”

Teach for America: “Teach For America lives by our values and always stands in solidarity with the most vulnerable students. … The Teach For America community includes more than 50,000 people from all backgrounds and political ideologies. We value diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, and we refuse to accept racism, bigotry, or discrimination in any form. We call on the secretary designee and president-elect to uphold these values in pursuit of an excellent and equitable public education for all.”

Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which urged Democrats not to work in Trump’s education department: “DFER remains deeply concerned by the President-elect’s education agenda, which by proposing to cut money from Title I and to eliminate the federal role on accountability, undermines progress made under the Obama administration to ensure all children have access to good schools. We applaud Mrs. Devos’s commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools, but hope, at the same time, she will be a voice that opposes policies that would hurt kids, both on the education front and concerning inter-related issues including proposals to kick 20 million families off of healthcare, deport millions of Dreamers, and accelerate stop-and-frisk practices that would lead to the imprisonment of larger numbers of low-income parents on low-level, non-violent offenses.”

The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country: “Her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education. By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.”

The Education Trust, a group that promotes high achievement for students of color and poor students: “As U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has the opportunity to continue our nation’s upward trajectory by working to ensure that students are given the opportunities they need to succeed academically, and that schools and institutions are responsible for the success of all students. But there is a very real risk of undoing this hard-won progress if resources are diverted from the young people who most need them, or if the federal government fails to uphold its responsibility to protecting the needs and interests of all students — especially the most vulnerable.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican: Michiganders know the passion Betsy has for reforming education in a way that puts kids first. Betsy’s appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels in Washington.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation Teachers: “Betsy DeVos is everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America — an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system and push a special-interest agenda that is opposed by the majority of voters. Installing her in the Department of Education is the opposite of Trump’s promise to drain the swamp.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students: “We are deeply concerned by the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education. GLSEN is committed to the principle that all students have a right to high-quality public education free from discrimination. DeVos’s record of advocacy for vouchers and tuition tax credits represents a rejection of that principle.”

Correction (Nov. 28, 2016): This piece has been updated to correct the name of Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute.

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.”