On the Agenda

Four things to watch for at New Schools Venture Fund Summit, this week’s big education reform confab

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor

Education conferences are often carefully orchestrated affairs involving panel discussions in which the participants more or less agree. Rarely do they make headlines.

But last year’s summit put on by the New Schools Venture Fund — a “venture philanthropy” that supports education reform causes, including charter schools — was an exception.

Its emphasis on social justice, with one attendee describing the event as reminiscent of a Black Lives Matter rally, sparked a heated debate about the role of race and politics in education, as below-the-surface tensions within that movement went public. The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary have only served to exacerbate the strains.

This year’s conference, which includes a few big names, including former Secretary of Education John King, will feature some discussion of these debates, as well as a heavy focus on education technology.

Chalkbeat will be attending this year, and here’s what we’ll be looking for:

Can right and left get along?

The debate about last year’s summit was sparked by a blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio. He described a “leftward lurch” that was going to “push conservatives out of education reform,” as epitomized by the conference’s focus on social-justice issues. This led to a flurry of blog posts, internal debates, and open letters about political divides and racial diversity within the ed reform movement.

Some on both sides of the debate worried that long-running bipartisan support for charter schools and teacher accountability initiatives — recall Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney both praising President Obama’s education agenda — would be weakened.

In a nod to this issue, this year’s summit’s closing session is titled “Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Disagreements, Tradeoffs and Common Ground,” and features panelists with diverse ideological perspectives, including Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform and Matt Ladner of the Charles Koch Institute.

How do people talk about DeVos and Trump?

Since the last summit, U.S. politics has been turned upside down — a new president and secretary of education are promoting school choice, but not the brand that’s generally popular at New Schools.

Some charter supporters worry that DeVos and Trump will make the topic politically toxic and are much more skeptical of private school vouchers, DeVos’s signature issue. Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools initially praised Trump’s proposed budget — which directs more money to charter schools, but cuts from the education budget — a number of charter leaders criticized it in an op-ed in USA Today, as did DFER.

“We want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy,” the charter leaders wrote.

Notably, there’s not much about Trump, DeVos, or private school vouchers on the NSVF agenda, suggesting that the conference may steer clear of the topic — at least officially. We’re sure it will be a frequent topic of conversation at receptions and hotel bars after the official programming.

A “big bet” on ed tech — but where’s the evidence?

The agenda does include a heavy focus on education technology and “personalized learning,” or the idea that technology can be used to tailor teaching to specific students’ needs. Sessions include “How to Personalize Learning with Rigor and High Expectations,” and “Is Ed Tech the Great Equalizer? Designing Products for Equity,” among several others.

Even the description of the one panel on the new federal education law starts by saying, “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) brings tremendous opportunities for innovation and personalized learning.”

This emphasis dovetails with a recent report from NSVF calling on philanthropists to make a “big bet” on technology-based innovation in schools. Indeed, two of the biggest sponsors of the event — The Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — are key supporters of edtech. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat’s.)

That attention raises an obvious question: What’s the evidence that such an approach is likely to pay off for students? The research base on personalized learning is fairly thin, particularly when looking beyond standardized test scores. Supporters can point to some evidence of success, but critics can also point to a lack of impact in other instances, and an overall lack of studies on the topic.

We’ll be watching to see what studies are cited at panels promoting personalized learning. If they aren’t, we’ll be asking where the optimism about a generally unproven strategy stems from.

How is the charter school movement evolving?

One session, “Charters: Bigger, Better or Different?” points to three separate visions for the charter school movement: a focus on growth (expand quickly) vs. quality (be really good) vs. variety (offer families a number of different options). This panel features the heads of three charter networks, including KIPP.

In fact, the conference will be attended by many of the leaders of the highest-profile charter school networks. And the charter world is as big, numbers-wise, as it’s ever been. That means new pressures and lots of ideas about how the sector should evolve.

Should charters grow more, or less, quickly? Should the sector focus on creating different educational options for families to choose from? Should no-excuses charter schools change their approach to discipline? Will anyone discuss much-maligned virtual charters, which have posted abysmal test scores, leading even many charter advocates to call for them to be more tightly regulated?

There may well be tension between the different goals, so we’ll be paying attention to what different panelists have to say on the topic — and what approach charter leaders believe should be emphasized.

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.