Betsy DeVos

Head of Democrats For Education Reform blasts DeVos, calls push for vouchers a ‘sideshow’

PHOTO: Will Caldwell / Vimeo
Shavar Jeffries, head of Democrats for Education Reform.

It’s a tough time to be a Democrat for education reform.

After eight years with one of the original DFER members, President Obama, in the White House, the well-financed organization is under siege from both the left and right.

On one side are fellow progressives critical of the expansion of charter schools and test-based school accountability — whose backlash was epitomized by the rejection of an initiative to expand charters in Massachusetts, which was backed by DFER’s chapter there. On the other side are Republicans who are most interested in pushing for public funding of private schools and are skeptical of testing and standards, including the Common Core. Add President Trump to that mix, whose support of charter schools may alienate Democrats otherwise open to supporting them.

With all that in mind, Chalkbeat sat down with DFER’s president Shavar Jeffries at the New Schools Venture Fund summit to ask, what now?

Fighting Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration at large, he said, arguing that their policies are likely to harm students inside and outside of schools. He also defended charter schools as effective options for kids, saying they have to comply “with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, [and] have to be transparent in terms of their finances.” (This point, it’s worth noting, isn’t true in many cases, and remains a point of significant controversy.)

Jeffries also discussed school integration (he’s for it but said it’s not politically viable); school vouchers (he’s skeptical but unwilling to dismiss them out of hand); and the political divide in education reform.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: How do you think it’s gone with Secretary DeVos so far?

Jeffries: I think it hasn’t gone well. I think what we’ve seen from her has been very disappointing on many levels. There seems to be a lack of commitment to any meaningful federal role in terms of accountability — we’re very worried about what we’re going to see coming out of the ESSA accountability process. We obviously saw the skinny budget, which we saw cut 13 percent from the DOE, $9 billion, cutting after-school programs, cutting teacher preparation programs, cutting out of the Pell grant surplus, eliminating the supplemental education opportunity grant programs. All of that is very disappointing.

There seems not to be a commitment to civil rights equity and enforcement. The candidates we’ve seen who are up for that position really don’t have a background in terms of civil rights enforcement. So, very disappointing.

And then frankly the administration more broadly for kids — it’s not just what happens within DOE but the social safety net, the cuts to the community development block grant program, the cuts to the housing programs, the cuts to the food stamp programs, kicking 24 million people off of healthcare, more aggressive enforcement in deportations, which affect large numbers of our kids. On every level we think it’s been horrible for children, so we’re fighting against it.

How are you fighting against it?

On every level. We’re fighting on the communications front, in partnership with DFERs throughout the country in Congress to push back against this; we’re fighting at the state and local level to protect our DREAMers, to ensure that immigration agents aren’t showing up at schools to deport children; mobilizing DFERs throughout the country to fight for increased investments in our kids, in after-school programs, teacher prep, higher ed.

Do you support Secretary DeVos’s push to expand private school choice through vouchers and tax credit scholarships?

We don’t even know what that is. We haven’t seen any specific plan from her.

We support choice through the public charter sector, so we support increases in the federal charter school program. We’ll see what her proposal is, but to the extent it is a proposal where money is going to for-profit providers, to the extent it’s a proposal where there’s going to be partial vouchers that don’t cover the cost of tuition, to the extent that it’s a proposal where there’s going to be lax accountability, we wouldn’t support any of those types of proposals.

Are there any state voucher programs that you think are good and would support?

We just don’t do a lot on vouchers, and in a lot of ways vouchers are really a sideshow — you have 50 million kids in public schools, 3 million in public charter schools, about 400,000 in voucher programs.

We would say to DeVos that public school choice is a great thing. Focus where we already have a track record of what works, which is the public charter sector. The idea of taking scarce federal resources and investing them in a set of programs that are not proven doesn’t make a lot of sense for us, whereas you get much more leverage, you get much more return for every dollar invested in terms of student outcomes for kids, investing in the federal charter school program. That’s what we encourage her to do.

If they’re going pursue some sort of voucher program, we’ll examine it whenever they put it together, but to us fundamentally it’s a sideshow. It addresses a very small number of kids. Again, any kid that we can do something positive for, we’re always going to support, but we’re really focused holistically on the entirety of what it is DOE’s proposing and what it means for kids.

One criticism I’ve heard of DFER is that by supporting charter schools you’re pushing the slippery slope toward vouchers, toward what critics would call privatization. I’d love for you to respond to that.

I just think that’s a false critique. It’s not a slippery slope to support public schools that are accountable to the public, that have to comply with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, that have to be transparent in terms of their finances, that are non-profit, so there’s not any profit motive, there’s not any distribution of any margins to investors — but to bring innovation to public education. We’re focused on what works for kids. We have a strong track record of public charter schools doing great things for kids.

We’ve seen in other domains — in the healthcare space, we see that public healthcare benefits leverage both hospitals and doctors who are run by governmental bureaucracies as well as nonprofit hospitals, as well as doctors who work for nonprofits. Same in the housing space — you have public housing run by governmental bureaucracies and then you also have nonprofit community development corporations that provide housing. To us it’s the same sort of model. We don’t see any slippery slope at all because they’re held accountable to the same rules, the same standards, the same kind of values that motivate public investment.

Are you concerned about virtual charter schools, when some research shows that students at these virtual schools, which are expanding in some states, make a lot less learning gains in a year?

If it’s virtual and kids aren’t coming into school, we’d be extremely skeptical of that. I wouldn’t want to just rule it out of hand.

We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools. It’s hard enough to educate particularly vulnerable kids with available resources — we don’t know how people can figure out how to educate kids and then distribute profits to investors. Furthermore, we haven’t seen the track record of people able to do that.

We focus on the core areas that affect most kids. That’s our disappointment with DeVos — there’s just so much focus on all these various permutations of choice and there’s not enough focus on the bread and butter, what needs to happen in classrooms every day to educate babies.

We obviously deeply believe in public choice in the form of public charter schools, but that has to be married with good instructional practice, making sure we have the right teachers in the classroom, making sure we have the right professional development, making sure we have the right instructional materials, making sure that those instructional materials are aligned with globally competitive standards. The bread and butter work, we don’t hear about that.

A lot of people have talked about the importance of school integration recently. Is that something that DFER has worked on much, wants to work on, is working on?

I’m a civil rights lawyer, so personally I have a lot of background in this. Organizationally, we haven’t spent a lot of resources in this space.

What I would say though is the data show that integrated classrooms are best for everybody — not only students of color, but white students as well. It fosters citizenship, people get to know one another, proximity breeds commonality in ways that are irreplaceable. When kids are talking to one another, in school with one another, it breaks down a lot of cultural and ethnic stereotypes. That’s good. So, sure, integration we think would be very positive.

Unfortunately there’s not many levers to bring that about now — the Supreme Court has really undercut over the last 30 years governmental efforts to coerce integration. Recent decisions, several terms ago in the Kentucky case made it even more difficult to have voluntary integration programs.

There’s not a political will to bring about integration; there’s very much a not-in-my-backyard attitude that a lot of parents and families have. We even see in New York — which by national standards is more progressive than other parts of the country — there’s a lot of pushback of efforts to bring about more integrated schools there.

I think it’s good for everybody personally — white and students of color — I just don’t see any realistic political capacity to bring it about, unfortunately. I think it’s bad for our country. Part of the cultural and ethnic division we have is because people aren’t proximate to one another, they aren’t talking to one another. If we learn about one another through the media, no wonder there’s so much misunderstanding and polarization in our country.

You’re on a panel about the left–right divide in education reform. Could you talk about where you think the reform movement stands on that left–right issue? Do you think it’s important for left-of-center reformers like yourself to work with more conservative ones?

I think it’s important to have more values-based conversations and coalitions around what’s best for kids.

I’ve heard from some folks that DFER is opposed to DeVos or opposed to certain types of policies because we’re Democrats. We’re like, no we’re opposed to this because we love children.

For us it’s not a Democrat thing. We spend most our time fighting Democrats because of our values. When we fight the union and old-guard Democrats, which is honestly what we spend most of our time doing, we don’t fight them because they’re Democrats; we fight them because we think they’re wrong on what’s right for kids.

In the same way we can fight them, damn right we’re going to fight Trump, DeVos, anybody who we believe is making it harder for our children to fulfill their potential. That’s the message I’m going to have — that if you say you’re here to advocate for kids and then we see policies that seek to gut the health of the communities where these families come from, don’t come to talk to me and say, “That’s outside the school, I can’t talk about that.”

I’ve heard from some, “That’s outside the school building, why should we talk about that? That may fray the coalition.” I’m like, then what coalition do you think we’re in? I’m in a coalition to fight for babies. If that child is going to be deported, I can’t say, hey, you know, what that’s not within however you define the four corners of what you think a school is responsible for. I’m saying you misdefined your role.

Historically, educators have always done this. Historically, educators have always fought to make sure their kids were fed and had access to healthcare. It’s only in spaces like this where people have to debate should we fight for food for children, should we fight for access to healthcare for children, should we fight for environmental health to make sure kids aren’t drinking lead when they go home, let alone within the school or that there aren’t environmental toxins. Only here do we debate that.

We’re also mindful, too, we can fight on this and work together on that. That’s OK, and that’s cool too. That’s part of the message I’m going to have. Look, if some of you all want to convince yourself that you don’t need to fight for food security or health care access or fight against mass incarceration — if you don’t think that’s going to affect kids, affect their educability, I think you’re smoking crack — but if that’s what you want to do, do that. I’m going to fight you on that, but if on charters or teacher prep or higher ed we can work together, we can do that. When we come back over here, I’ve got to put my foot in your butt because I think you’re doing things to hurt my babies.

On that point, could you see yourself working with the Trump–DeVos administration if there are areas of agreement?

It’s just hard to imagine what those might be.

Charter schools?

I just think the Trump administration is such a disaster on so many different levels. The character of — and I’m talking about Trump right now, not DeVos — the administration seems to be one that you can’t trust. They say one thing one day and say something totally different the next day.

It’s hard to work with people like that because you may think that you’re on the same page but then find out you’re not. The HBCU presidents, I think, thought there was a commitment; then when there was a signing for the budget, Trump is questioning whether or not it’s even constitutional to invest in HBCUs. Then a couple weeks later, now, maybe they’re trying to say something different. The challenge is character.

You can always work with people on policies where you agree, but when you don’t trust the character of the person you’re trying to partner with, it’s hard to work together because they may switch 24 hours later, and then you may have lost the credibility that you have worked hard to maintain. That’s what I say about Trump because he’s the leader of this administration. That makes it very difficult to work with folks you can’t trust.

Voucher debate update

Students given vouchers in Louisiana do worse than their peers. But new research shows some kids catch up

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

Past research on Louisiana’s school voucher program came to a bleak conclusion: students who used the program to transfer to a private school saw their test scores plummet.

A new study complicates that narrative, finding some good — or at least, less bad — news about the closely watched program.

The research shows that, for students who received a voucher at the middle or end of elementary school, there were no statistically significant effects on their math or reading test scores by the third year in the program. That’s a boon for voucher advocates who have argued against judging a program by its initial impacts.

This “is an initial study of a very long-term question: namely, can government create a level playing field for all types of schools so that the best of all types of schools are available to the most disadvantaged students?” John White, Louisiana’s schools superintendent, told Chalkbeat. “I think this study shows that we are on our way to making that happen.”

Still, other aspects of the study suggest that the program continues to have negative effects, often large ones, on some students, specifically those in early grades.

The findings come as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has promised a major federal push to expand private school choice. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, a statewide initiative that uses public funds to pay private school tuition for certain low-income students, is the seventh-largest voucher program in the country, serving over 7,000 students.

The research is a follow-up to an earlier study conducted by Jonathan Mills and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas and has not been formally peer-reviewed. The study was funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Mills and Wolf compare students who won the chance to participate in Louisiana’s program against those who applied for a voucher but lost the lottery. That means the researchers can be confident that differences between the two groups are caused by receiving the voucher.

For a number of technical reasons, the study focuses on just 514 older elementary school students who won a spot in a private school and remained there for three years, though they amount to only a small subset of the students using a voucher in the state.

The researchers find that by year three, the impacts of the program were slightly positive in English, moderately negative in math and science, and highly negative in social studies — but none of these results were statistically significant. They do find statistically significant positive effects in English for students who started out low performing in the subject.

White said the improvements in math and English compared to earlier years were reason for optimism.

The study also examines a larger sample that also included younger students. Here the results are decisively negative: Receiving a voucher led to large, statistically significant test score drops in both math and social studies.

But the authors caution that they are less confident in these results than in the findings exclusively for older students because they don’t have baseline test scores for such young students.

Why did the program seem to help students more when they remained for three years? White credits the threat of Louisiana’s test-based accountability rules, which are more stringent than most other states’ rules for private school choice programs. Critics have argued that these rules deter top-notch private schools from participating.

“The important finding is that, given accountability, schools improve — that includes private schools, as well as public schools,” White said.

The researchers are more skeptical of this explanation. They suggest that the improvement may have been the result of students for whom the program was not working returning to public schools, and adjustments made by private schools over time, including aligning curriculum to the state exam.

“It is possible that the private schools ignored those [potential] sanctions in year 1 and started taking them seriously in years 2 and 3, leading to the pattern of effects we observe, but it seems unlikely that they would place themselves in such a disadvantaged position from the start,” Mills and Wolf wrote.

Another study released Monday, of Indiana’s voucher program, showed that students in the program saw math achievement drop in comparison to public school students, but those who remained in private school for four years caught up in math and made gains in English.

Voucher debate update

First study of Indiana’s voucher program — the country’s largest — finds it hurts kids’ math skills at first, but not over time

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Cardinal Ritter High School has one of the highest percentages of students paying tuition with state-funded vouchers in Indiana.

A new analysis of Indiana’s school voucher program offers something for both sides in the heated debate about whether public money should be used to fund private school tuition.

The study, obtained by Chalkbeat, shows that students using a voucher saw math achievement fall on average, though students who remained in private school for four years improved to match or outperform public school students in math and English.

The results amount to a Rorschach test for advocates on either side of the issue.

“At the end of four years, English scores are slightly above where students started and math scores are statistically the same — so the trend line is heading the right way,” said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs voucher and tax credit programs.

“Indiana diverted millions of dollars for years from public schools to private school vouchers, resulting in negative or negligible results for student outcomes,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in a statement. “This latest study of vouchers should be yet another red flag to [U.S. Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos that she is going down the wrong path.”

The report was provided by researchers Mark Berends and Joseph Waddington after Chalkbeat obtained an earlier version of the study through a public records request to the Indiana Department of Education.

The study has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal but has not yet been published. (An initial description posted online —  later taken down — has drawn wide media attention, and the researchers also previously presented preliminary findings to separate gatherings of academics and school choice advocates.)

The authors declined to comment on the results but criticized Chalkbeat’s decision to release them.

“It does a disservice to social scientists who want to make sure their research passes peer review before being publicly released,” Berends of the University of Notre Dame and Waddington of the University of Kentucky wrote in an email.

Chalkbeat is publishing the research because it is on a matter of pressing public concern — whether low-income students given public dollars to attend private schools learn more than they would in public schools, as the Trump administration promises to push for more voucher programs like Indiana’s.

“In Indiana, we’ve seen some of the best pro-parent and pro-student legislation enacted in the country,” DeVos recently said, referring to the state’s private and charter school initiatives. Her former advocacy group, American Federation for Children, heavily backed Indiana’s school voucher program while she was the group’s chairperson.

Recent research has found that voucher programs can lead to drops in test scores, but some studies like those in D.C. and Louisiana only examine the first one or two years of the program. The latest analysis, the first statewide study of Indiana’s program, looks at four years of data — and offers evidence that judging programs by short-term results may be unfair.

A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education declined to comment on the results, saying the department would do so once the study completes the peer-review process.

Voucher students lose ground in math, but those who stick around see gains in English

The paper examines the first four years — from the 2011-12 school year to 2014-15 — of Indiana’s private school voucher program, the largest in the country.

The initiative was championed by former governor Mitch Daniels and expanded to include middle-class families under Mike Pence, now vice president. In Indiana, participating schools are largely religious, and unlike in some school choice programs, students take state tests and schools can be barred from accepting new voucher students for poor academic performance.

The researchers focus on low-income students in the middle or end of elementary school who switched from public schools to private schools using a voucher, and compare them to similar students who remained in public school.

Relative to low-income students in public schools, those whose family elected to use a voucher were more likely to be female, Latino, and an English-language learner, and less likely to be black or have a disability. The voucher students also had slightly higher initial test scores, though still below the state average.

Student achievement in English over time

Compared to other private school students in the state, voucher recipients were more racially diverse, more likely to be low-income, and had significantly lower test scores.

The study estimates that receiving a voucher led to moderate decreases in math test scores overall. Students who participated in the program for four consecutive years initially saw a drop, but by year four they had caught back up to their public school counterparts.

When looking at English scores, the data suggest that there was no impact, good or bad, of receiving a voucher on average. However, the subset of students who remained in the program for all four years appeared to be doing moderately better in English than those in public schools.

In contrast to students who stuck with the program for several years, those who eventually left private schools saw large decreases in achievement while they were using a voucher.

There were not major differences across students by ethnicity or gender. But students with disabilities saw significant decreases in English test scores, while Catholic schools improved English achievement.

(The study was funded in part by the Walton Foundation, which is a supporter of Chalkbeat. EdChoice is also a Chalkbeat funder. Learn more about our funding here.)

Study validates advocates’ argument not to rush to judgment based on early years

The analysis of the program joins recent research showing that voucher programs can hurt student achievement. But the study’s finding that students who remain in the program improve over time gives new credence to advocates who said it was unreasonable to judge a program based on only one or two years of data.

“The results obviously cast further doubt on proponents’ claims that awarding vouchers to low-income students will immediately boost their math and reading achievement, but they also indicate that the negative initial effects on test scores seen in Louisiana, Ohio, and now Indiana are less concerning than it might appear,” said Marty West, a professor at Harvard, who reviewed the paper at Chalkbeat’s request.

The authors of the study suggest that private schools have gotten better as they have acclimated to new students who were more disadvantaged than those they previously served.

“Over time, voucher students may adjust to their new schools, and private schools may make adjustments that better meet the educational needs of voucher students,” the authors write, though they note that their research can’t confirm either hypothesis.

Research also released Monday on year three of Louisiana’s voucher program showed that negative results in early years of the program dissipated for some students in some subjects, but found continued negative effects for those in younger grades.

“What’s interesting about the Indiana results is that they’re consistent with the Louisiana results … in that they start out pretty negative and get less negative over time,” said Matt Chingos of the Urban Institute who has studied private school scholarships in New York City.

West noted the large achievement drops for those leaving the program may not be a bad sign.

“The fact that the students who switch back were disproportionately those who saw big drops in achievement is encouraging,” he said. “It does suggest that any large negative effects of voucher programs on achievement could be to some extent self-correcting.”

Doug Harris, an economist at Tulane University who has been critical of DeVos, said the the new research in Indiana “still has to give pause to anyone pushing broad federal or statewide [voucher] programs.”

“There are still no examples of statewide programs producing overall positive academic effects,” he said.

Other researchers praise study, but point to limitations

The results come with several important caveats.

First, because vouchers were not assigned through random lottery — unlike in some state programs, like Louisiana’s — the researchers can’t be confident that the results only capture the impact of receiving a voucher, a point the study acknowledges.

“Choosing to apply for and receiving a voucher depends on the active choices of parents and their children,” Berends and Waddington write.

Other researchers said the Indiana study does a good job controlling for that selection bias, though.

“The study is well done,” said Harris. “They try many different methods and the results hold up well.” He did note that there was some evidence that low-income students who took a voucher were more advantaged than poor students in public schools, suggesting the possibility of an “upward bias” in the results.

Second, the Indiana research is only able to look at a subset of the thousands of students who have used a voucher in Indiana to date — late elementary and middle school, low-income students who switched from public to private school. Similarly, the researchers only had data on a small number of students remained in the program for four years. That’s a limitation in using the study to draw conclusions about other students, West said.

Enlow and West both noted that the study only measures academic success with state test scores.

That, West said, means that it “can’t speak to how voucher use may have affected other student outcomes or families’ satisfaction with their child’s school.”