in your own words

Dear Secretary: Your messages to Betsy DeVos, as she begins her job overseeing the U.S. education department

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

“Our school has 300 students spread out over 550 square miles.”

“Today I dealt with a student who has been in 19 foster homes.”

“Public schools are where we build a just and fair society.”

That’s a bit of what you told us when we asked Chalkbeat readers what you wanted the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to know about your schools. DeVos, who took the helm at the U.S. Department of Education last week, faced extra criticism before she was confirmed because she hasn’t had personal experience with public schools as a teacher or student.

We thought you could help fill in those gaps — and help her start her to-do list.

It turns out you had a lot to say. Many of you wanted DeVos to know that the school where you work or send your children is working. Others explained how acutely those schools needed additional teachers, pencils, and counselors. And a few of you offered stories of individual students she might never meet, but her policies might touch.

Here’s more of what you told us.

Dear Secretary DeVos, here’s what’s working …

We are a district with great diversity and with great pride. We do not have a lot of money, but the money we do receive is used efficiently and with students in mind.
— Marcella Safe, Arvada, CO

The teachers in my children’s public school work incredibly hard. They put in 30 hours a week above and beyond the typical school week. Fortunately, they are willing to do this with no extra compensation.
— Shari Sullivan-Marshall, Crested Butte, CO

P.S. 295 is a model of the inclusivity that will prepare my (middle class, white, male) child for success in a diverse, global America. It’s a joyful, effective school because it’s funded — and beloved — by our community.
— Zoe, Brooklyn, NY

Three of my children graduated from a “choice” high school in Jefferson County, Co. My wife feels it saved one of our kids from serious trouble, and he and the other two are better for their experience.
— Craig Bakken, Golden, CO

As a white, upper middle-class family, we were blessed to have a wonderful, diverse neighborhood public school. My kids had an incredibly rich experience thanks to the school’s diverse population, which includes many refugee families.
— Beckett Stokes, Denver, CO

My son is a sophomore at Arsenal Tech High School, inner city Indianapolis, and he scored a PSAT score in the 99th percentile. We can afford private, have charters, but chose Arsenal Tech for its awesome teachers. Our son’s teachers deserve better resources, but mostly they deserve your respect.
— Ruth Jean, Indianapolis, IN

Metropolitan State University of Denver is a haven for first generation and nontraditional college students. Though they juggle academics with parenting, jobs, and other adult responsibilities, they come to class prepared, engaged and on time. They work hard and think hard. I love them.
— Anne Thulson, Denver, CO

I am the mother of a severely disabled child. There is no school in my state that could meet her needs the way our local public school has.
— Dawn Mathias, Fort Wayne, IN

The school I teach at is a public charter school that does not treat education as a product or students as customers. The business-model approach to education cannot account for the depth and complexity of a human being.
— Matt Dooley, Durango, CO

I come from a poor family, where we didn’t always have enough to eat, but I was blessed with a strong public school system in my hometown in Massachusetts. Public schools prepared me for college, which launched a successful career that provides for my family.
— Gretchen Craig, New York, NY

We were a beloved community asset linking culture and history across generations.
— Madeline Morrissey, formerly of New Orleans, LA

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar

And what isn’t.

Unregulated charter schools and poor emergency managers destroyed the public school district in Detroit. I teach freshmen at the alternative high school here who are the result of those policies. We don’t get enough funding to serve them emotionally or academically now.
— Emily Simpson, Detroit, MI

Today I dealt with a student who has been in 19 foster homes and another recently busted for dealing meth after a drug dealer groomed her, much like a sexual offender does a victim. She is undocumented with little hope in her future, especially if DACA is repealed.
— Stacey Hervey, Denver, CO

My students need the federal government’s support. Currently, they are suffering from a lack of resources and a lack of consistent teachers. They need people to believe in them.
— Shannon E. G. Brown, Indianapolis, IN

For 30 years I have served students in a rural setting with a high poverty. We have bare-bones resources. We can’t fulfill the transition needs of our secondary students. There are few jobs and much addiction among families.
— Jennifer Christiansen, Chazy, NY

I want you to know that when my students come to school in the morning, many are receiving their first hot meal since they left school the day before. I want you to know that some of my students don’t have electricity or hot water at home, yet are tasked with unfair norms of proficiency.
— Amber, Memphis, TN

There was no school bus to many areas of the city where our students lived. Many took unreliable Detroit city buses to school every day, and if they lost their bus pass, they were required to pay the $200+ to replace it.
— Jen Spears, Detroit, MI

I have students who eat breakfast and lunch daily at school and get snacks sent home because their parents working three-plus jobs can’t afford enough food. I have students who don’t have pencils or books at home to do any school related work.
— Jessica McNary, Gunnison, CO

Our school has 300 students spread out over 550 square miles. It is sad for me to see our starting teacher salary is $30,000 after college grads have spent four or five years of schooling and oftentimes having debt.
— Steve Wilson, Simla, CO

As a Title I school, 75 percent of our students are living below the poverty line. Our fourth and fifth grade classes have over 30 students. Please assist with lowering the teacher/student ratio.
— Terri Mitchell, Lafayette, CO

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
Detroit Montessori student Bryan Smith, 8.

Some suggestions:

We are working to keep all of our students in school every day until they graduate by using restorative practices. Take a few minutes to find out about how teachers can help students this way.
— Samantha Rubin, Brooklyn, NY

In rural Colorado, it is hard to find and keep teachers because the pay is so low. A voucher program will not work because there aren’t any private schools.
— Janae Ash, Pagosa Springs, CO

I’m from a rural, impoverished school where expectations are high and resources low. With Common Core standards implemented, I’d like to see resources, websites, units, [special education] support for grades K-12 … in one accessible place.
— Cassandra Torres, Las Animas, CO

I am with a non-profit that serves public and charter schools. Teachers and students suffer the most when they aren’t sure if their school will be open the next year.
— Karen Hess, Memphis, TN

My child’s public neighborhood school is a mix of income levels, languages, abilities. Studies show that good neighborhood schools benefit entire communities.
— Natalie Winslow, Culver City, CA

Students must be able to voice concerns about their school and education. They should not only choose where they go to school, but have a strong voice in what and how they are learning.
— Roxanne McKnight, Durango, CO

Along with some reminders — and two invitations.

Teachers like me, along with our community partners, will fight back relentlessly if you try to limit opportunities for our most vulnerable students.
— Sean Davis, Denver, CO

I went to school in Chicago. The milk was often spoiled, but I got an excellent education. I met people from varied economic/racial/social backgrounds. I learned diversity makes us stronger.
— Rebecca, New York, NY

Our elementary school is full of wonderful children who come from difficult backgrounds, and most speak two languages. They may not be getting the best test scores, but they achieve their best.
— Kaity, Detroit, MI

We are a rural public school. We have strong community support and are not failing our children. We struggle in being underfunded but we make it work. We are not paid enough to own homes in our resort community and we still work our hardest.
— Lisa Hughes, Louisville, CO

I grew up in Denver during desegregation and the resulting white flight. People were afraid of their children going to school with children who did not share their class and race … Public schools are where we build a just and fair society, together, for everyone.
— Belle Zars, Denver, CO

A rural school is the hub of the community; we have one building for pre-K through 12. We have limitations (reduced Internet availability, long bus commutes), but we are a small town with big pride. We invite Ms. DeVos to visit and ask us about school choice. She’ll hear there’s no place else we’d rather be.
— Elissa Smith, Lyndonville, NY

I teach at a Title I charter school in Denver, Colorado, serving students of poverty and students of color. My students are talented, brilliant, resilient, and capable young people who represent the future of our country. You are welcome to visit my classroom.
— Hailey McClure, Denver, CO

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.