guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

Funding fight

In Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Colorado’s teachers union finds a useful face for the opposition

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is working to fuel opposition to a bill that would boost charter school funding by associating it with U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The union on its Facebook page published an image of DeVos and branded Senate Bill 61 as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.”

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools. It was recently approved by the state Senate — but not without a fierce fight from a bloc of lawmakers who taught in district-run public schools.

The union isn’t the only group using DeVos’s image to oppose legislation making its way through the statehouse. A new political nonprofit, Colorado Children Before Profits, launched its own website linking DeVos and President Donald Trump to the charter school funding bill, and two other bills that would change the way Colorado funds schools.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has long supported charter schools and vouchers for private schools, became an unexpected political lightning rod early in Trump’s administration.

PHOTO: CEA/Facebook
The Colorado Education Association posted this image to its Facebook page earlier in March.

In Colorado, the union and a group of parents protested outside U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office, urging him to oppose her confirmation. Gardner ultimately voted to confirm DeVos.

DeVos has no formal role in the push for Senate Bill 61, which soon will be considered by the state House of Representatives.
But “there’s a natural tie,” argues Kerrie Dallman, CEA’s president.

“Betsy DeVos has long been connected to the movement to radically expand charter schools, as well as grow education vouchers and tax credits,” Dallman said. “We’re concerned because there is so little accountability in that movement, and a lack of transparency.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform organization, said the union’s use of DeVos is “typical D.C.-style politics.”

“The teachers union’s latest propaganda campaign is shameful,” Ragland said in a statement. “They are spreading demonstrably false information in an attempt to politicize an issue that has had longtime bipartisan support in Colorado. Senate Bill 61 is a uniquely Colorado solution, supported by local leaders in both parties.”

in her own words

Rave reviews: Here are the states, schools, and programs that have gotten Betsy DeVos’s seal of approval

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might not have ever worked in a school system or state education department, but she’s been getting up to speed fast on what they’ve been doing.

And unlike her boss, who issues insults so freely that people track his targets, DeVos talks a lot about the things she likes. In her speeches, she’s been citing program after program that she supports, often with remarkable specificity. Together, they offer a look at what issues — school choice! — and what parts of the country she is focused on first.

We’ll be keeping track of the K-12 initiatives that get a public DeVos seal of approval here. Did we miss something? Let us know.

 CALIFORNIA’s support for career and technical education:

California has been forward-leaning in implementing career and technical education programs that deliver results: The state now offers more than 13,000 courses that meet the admissions requirements of the University of California system.

California has also invested in Linked Learning programs across the state that integrate industry-based learning at the college-prep level, allowing students to acquire the skills needed to begin a high-potential career right after graduation. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

CLEVELAND’s technology training:

Another example is Cleveland’s “Project Lead the Way.” Project Lead the Way connects students with engineering businesses and organizations in the community. Children learn relevant subjects such as coding, robotics, and in some cases, 3D printing. This type of hands-on experience encourages students to engage in ways the traditional classroom often does not, and it introduces them to skills and subject-areas with high-potential futures. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

DENVER’s student transportation efforts (more from Chalkbeat here):

In Denver, represented today by Happy Haynes, the district is currently providing transportation to children from underserved areas to schools in other regions of the city. This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options. The “Success Express,” as it’s called, is a great example of how LEAs are leveraging federal, state and local funds to best serve children. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

FLORIDA’s dual-enrollment programs:

I think dual-enrollment is a great option for high schoolers that want to earn college credit and get a jump on their college, their post-high school studies. And Valencia [College in Orlando] is clearly addressing that need in a meaningful and major way. It’s a model that can be replicated in many other communities. (March 24 interview with Orlando’s WFTV)

FLORIDA’s tax credit scholarship program:

One young lady, Denisha Merriweather, failed the third grade twice at her assigned traditional school in Florida. Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic. She appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of her brother and mother, who both dropped out of high school.

But Denisha’s godmother intervened, and, because of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Denisha was able to attend a school that better met her needs.

Now Denisha is not only the first in her family to graduate from high school, but she also graduated from college and, this May, she will receive her master’s degree in social work. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

FLORIDA’s St. Andrew Catholic School:

INDIANAPOLIS’s “innovation schools” initiative (more from Chalkbeat here):

These schools are under the governance of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, but they are freed up to operate independently and thus better attune themselves to the unique needs of their students.

I want to bring School 15 to your attention as an example of new thinking. School 15 has struggled for years with low-test scores, and the state gave it an “F” in 2016.  But in recent months, parents and teachers in Indianapolis have come together to propose School 15 become a “neighborhood-run” school under the “innovation schools” program.

This isn’t a school run by an outside, third-party operator – this is a school where parents are in direct control. The community takes ownership of developing the school’s structure, staffing and performance. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

MICHIGAN’s program to help people with disabilities join the workforce:

In my home state of Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley joined forces with state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein to level the playing field for a group that’s consistently underrepresented in the overall workforce: people with disabilities.

The initiative, MI Hidden Talent, provides training and resources to help businesses adopt inclusive hiring practices. (March 15 speech to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

MICHIGAN’s The Potter’s House private school:

After visiting The Potter’s House, a small private school in my hometown that provides scholarships to low-income, mostly minority students, I saw the struggle of so many families who were just trying to access the same opportunities and choices for their children that my husband and I had for ours. Schools like The Potter’s House gave kids the chance to succeed and thrive, but for every student who got the chance to attend The Potter’s House, I knew there were others stuck in schools not meeting their needs. (March 13 speech to the Council of the Great City Schools, and a number of other mentions)

MICHIGAN’s City High Middle School:

In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, City High Middle School is nationally recognized and is ranked the third-best school in the state. Forty-five percent are minority students, and 98 percent of all students are enrolled in IB programs.

In conversations with parents and students who are part of City High, it’s clear how much they appreciate and value the opportunity that school provides. (Feb. 15, speaking to Magnet Schools of America national conference)

MILWAUKEE’s school choice program:

The longest-running program in the country, Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, is located in Lt. Gov. Kleefisch’s state of Wisconsin.

That program started in 1990, and is now one of four private choice programs in Wisconsin, serving more than 33,000 students in that state. If you add to that the population attending the state’s public charter schools, more than 76,000 students in Wisconsin are able to attend a school of their parents’ choosing.

One of these schools is St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, which serves almost exclusively students from low-income families.

One of those students, Jeffrey, described his education experience prior to attending St. Marcus as “setting him up to fail.” His traditional schools simply didn’t meet his academic needs.

When he enrolled at St. Marcus everything changed for him.

Jeffrey’s teachers took special interest in him, and today he’s a college graduate and works as an architectural designer. And he credits his success to the support of his family and his teachers at St. Marcus. (March 15, speaking to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

NEVADA’s turnaround school district:

One of those 25 programs is the Nevada Achievement School District, which was launched this year. The state identified the schools that were persistently underperforming, and has instructed the achievement school district to provide the families attending those schools with up to six high-quality, local options.

This is but the first step in helping more than 57,000 children attending Nevada’s underperforming schools, but it is a step in the right direction. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

WASHINGTON state’s support for virtual schools:

Another student I met, Sandeep Thomas, grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India with absent and neglectful parents. Sandeep was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey but continued to suffer from the experiences of his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington state, where Sandeep was able to join a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the comfort of his own home and develop at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, and also having earned 39 hours of college credit. Today, he’s working in the finance industry and is a public advocate for increased school options that allow students like him a chance to succeed. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)