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

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

We’ve reached out for reaction from DeVos’s team and will update when we hear back.

choice words

Critics of vouchers say they’re marred by racism and exacerbate segregation. Are they right?

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Debates over “school choice” — or “privatization” to critics — were already heated.

Then came a rhetorical hand grenade: a report by the Center For American Progress describing the “racist origins” of school vouchers and presented at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters. AFT president Randi Weingarten doubled down in a recent speech, arguing that voucher programs are the “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Unsurprisingly, school choice backers have vehemently denied the charge.

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants,” responded Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school voucher group that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used to lead.

DeVos, for her part, has argued that school choice is meant to help poor families and can lead to more integrated schools.

So what do we know about the competing claims?

It’s true that the idea of public subsidies for private school tuition grew in the 1950s and 60s as a means to avoid integration efforts — and it’s also true that there has long been pockets of support for the idea among progressives.

There is little evidence that existing voucher programs have caused increases in racial segregation. But there is also reason to fear a larger initiative, one that’s not limited to low-income families, might.

And the debate is no doubt complicated by the embrace of vouchers by the Trump administration, one that advocates say is impeding civil rights on many fronts beyond education.

Here are five things you should know.

1. Advocates for school vouchers have had diverse motives over time, including support for segregation,  as well as racial justice.

Private school vouchers were used to avoid court-ordered integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, as The Center for American Progress report lays out.

“By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,” the report states. “Seven of those states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — maintained tuition grant programs that offered vouchers to students in an effort to incentivize white students to leave desegregated public school districts.”

This history is echoed by a study in the Peabody Journal of Education. “From their inception, vouchers were not race-neutral instruments,” a trio of researchers write. Those early voucher programs predated the support of Milton Friedman, the economist who wrote an influential 1955 essay endorsing the idea.

Friedman’s embrace of vouchers was based on the view that expanding competition would improve outcomes for students and make schools more integrated, building upon the philosophical work from a century earlier of John Stuart Mill. The idea also received support from more progressive corners, including Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist who supported using vouchers to try to “close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

In a 2005 article for the Georgetown Law Journal titled “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First,” James Forman, Jr., now a Yale professor, acknowledges that vouchers were used to avoid integration but describes this history as “incomplete.”

He points to freedom schools established in 1964 in Mississippi by civil rights groups to educate black children who had been failed by the discriminatory public system as one example.

“By building separate schools and openly repudiating the establishment system, the freedom schools movement laid a foundation for later progressive school choice proposals,” Forman wrote.

Despite how vouchers were used in the 1950s and 1960s, the Peabody analysis points out that support for them grew among some progressives starting in the 1970s “as an antidote for overly bureaucratic big-city schools.”

The first voucher program in line with this vision was established in Milwaukee in 1990, with the support of a motley coalition of conservative Republicans and black Milwaukee Democrats. Among the latter group were Howard Fuller, who would later become Milwaukee’s school superintendent, and Polly Williams, a Democratic state senator.

The initiative was targeted at low-income families but would subsequently expand to include some middle-class students, a move that Fuller and Williams opposed. Williams would say that the program had been “hijacked.” The Milwaukee NAACP was against the city’s voucher initiative from its inception.

Private school choice programs have since grown throughout the country; many, though not all, target low- or moderate-income families, students attending public schools deemed low-performing, or students with disabilities. Leading pro-voucher groups support a dramatic expansion, including the creation of universal choice programs that all families can use.

By law, private schools that receive federal tax exemptions are now prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, though many of the original segregation academies still enroll few if any black students.

In sum, private school vouchers have been promoted by adherents with diverse motives, including some who viewed them as a way to avoid desegregation and others who saw school choice as a means to achieve racial justice.

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

2. There is little evidence today that vouchers targeted at low-income families increase school segregation.

A key question now is whether voucher programs increase school segregation in practice. There is surprisingly little recent research on this topic, but the studies that do exist suggest that voucher programs for low-income students have no effect or they lead to small increases in school integration.

A recent study on Louisiana’s voucher program, which is largely used by low-income African-American students, found that black students tended to leave highly segregated public schools — but many also moved to a segregated private school. Still, more transfers had beneficial effects on integration than harmful ones.

“A third of all voucher transfers resulted in more integrated public and private schools, an additional 57 percent of transfers had mixed effects (positive effects in one sector, negative effects in another), and just 9 percent of transfers had negative effects,” as lead author Anna Egalite described the results.

A 2010 analysis of Milwaukee’s school voucher program found that it had a neutral effect on segregation. “Racially homogeneous schools make up a sizeable portion of schools in both [public and private] sectors,” the researchers wrote.

A number of older studies paint a positive picture of vouchers’ effect on integration, but this research cannot isolate cause and effect, as a report by EdChoice points out.

3. That doesn’t mean concerns about vouchers causing segregation are completely unfounded, though.

Large-scale voucher programs — which Betsy DeVos has promised and long advocated for — could have different results.

Research on charter schools in the U.S. and on vouchers in other countries offer more clues about how school choice programs sort students.

A report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, argues that vouchers threaten integration efforts, relying in part on evidence from Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden. Widespread choice programs have been shown to exacerbate segregation in those countries across a number of dimensions. (There are many reasons, though, that education policy lessons from other countries might not translate cleanly to the U.S.)

Research on charter schools — a form of school choice that has expanded much more rapidly than vouchers — may be a helpful guide for the effects of a universal voucher program.

Studies on charter schools in Indianapolis, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among other places, show that charter schools can lead to greater racial stratification. There is very little evidence suggesting charters lead to more integrated schools, though a number of specific charter schools have emphasized diversity. National overviews have not found consistent evidence that charters cause segregation.

PHOTO: Dustin Chamber, courtesy of Fugee Academy.

4. The level of support for vouchers among black and Hispanic voters depends on how the question is worded.

Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.

But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.

According to another recent poll, just one-third of African-Americans said they would support “allowing students and parent to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” Ballot initiatives on school vouchers have also rarely been successful, though breakdowns of votes by race are not available.

5. The Trump administration’s stance on other issues makes vouchers seem more racist to some critics.

To some, the national messenger for vouchers is just as damning as the message.

Criticism of President Trump’s positions on civil rights — his ban on travel from several predominantly Muslims countries, his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and his voter integrity commission based on false claims of widespread voter fraud — are well documented.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown of the Center for American Progress.

But to supporters of vouchers, emphasizing the politics and not the policy amounts to opposing an idea that could help low-income kids.

“I absolutely worry about the Trump administration embrace of this issue because it’s created more of a political wedge,” Chavous of the American Federation for Children told Chalkbeat in May. “So are we going to wait four years to find something for these parents whose kids are struggling? Are we going to wait eight years? His embrace of the issue is a challenge politically, but we still have to do something for these kids who are underserved.”

Whether vouchers actually accomplish that goal remains its own hotly contested question.