what betsy's reading

Has the charter school movement gone awry? A new book says yes, and it’s causing a stir

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

What’s the point of a charter school? Is acting as another option for families enough, or should it have to post higher test scores than other schools, too?

Those questions are at the heart of a growing rift in the education reform world — and the focus of a new book making waves among some of its most prominent conservative figures.

The book, a collection of essays edited by the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen and Cara Candal and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, makes the case that the charter school movement has gone awry: it’s over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.

They appear to have an ally in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In a recent speech to charter school leaders, DeVos criticized lengthy charter applications, warning that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats.”

What’s needed now, the book’s authors say, is more innovation and less of a focus on test results. That argument prompted Checker Finn, the former president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, to call the book “idiocy.” In an email exchange among a number of well-known education reformers, Allen shot back, saying Finn was “catching the same disease that befell Diane Ravitch,” the school choice advocate-turned-reform-critic.

The book’s arguments mark a break from longtime tenets of conservative education reform, particularly the test-based accountability promoted by two powerful brothers, George W. and Jeb Bush, over the last 20 years. And with DeVos at the helm of the federal education department and Republicans in control of most state legislatures and governorships, the manifesto may serve as a blueprint for conservative policymakers across the country.

“I do think the free-market crowd has emerged a bit from the shadows and is sensing in the current administration and political climate an opportunity to muscle into a stronger role in defining the future of school choice,” said Jeff Henig, a professor at Columbia.

Calls for a broader vision for the charter movement

Allen and Eden say charter school advocates can be divided into two camps.

In one corner are “system-centered reformers,” who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.

In the other are “parent-centered reformers.” They want to see a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” DeVos — who appeared at a private reception held by Allen’s Center for Education Reform in June — has described her vision in similar terms.

The rest of the book, “Charting a New Course,” expands on the idea that charter schools need fewer restrictions. An opening piece by Allen argues that the charter school sector has become too risk-averse and uniform, while Eden says that advocates have been too focused on increasing test scores through no-excuses charter schools in urban areas.

In separate essays, Derrell Bradford of the advocacy group 50CAN writes that charters should expand to the suburbs to broaden their political coalition. Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute says that test-based accountability has led to the narrowing of the school curriculum, and University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene argues that test scores are poor proxies for students’ life outcomes and thus are of limited use for regulating charter schools.

Eden and Allen close the book with recommendations that include expanding the number and type of charter authorizers, ensuring charters are not bound by teacher certification rules, and reducing charter school regulations.

They suggest that charter schools should expand not only because of their measurable outcomes but because parents subscribe to their values.

“Fundamentally, chartering is about creating the space for this freedom,” Eden and Allen write. “Some charter advocates view charter schooling as simply a means to an end, as a more efficient way to drive higher test scores. But freedom is a good in and of itself.”

Are authorizers already doing this?

A centerpiece of the divide between the two charter camps, Eden and Allen write, is how the decision is made to close a charter school.

“In a parent-centered ecosystem, authorizers should retain the ability to close a school – but that decision should always be a human one,” they write. “Rather than simply close a school based on a formula for standardized test score performance, test scores should open a serious conversation rather than close one.”

One target of their ire: the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which they see as epitomizing the “system-centered” worldview.

So it’s surprising that Greg Richmond, president of NACSA, says he agrees that schools shouldn’t be closed based on test scores alone — which he says is already the case in most instances.

“It’s not only already happening, it’s something we have been recommending forever,” he told Chalkbeat.

Richmond supports closure laws that create a presumption that charters with poor academic results — usually measured largely through test scores — will close. But he says that authorizers and state accountability systems should look at other metrics like attendance, too.

Eden said he hopes that is what is actually going on, but he fears it’s not, since some states have laws outlining how test scores should prompt school closures.

At the heart of the disagreement is how heavily to weigh parental demand for a school. Richmond says that demand is relevant, though a NACSA guide exhorts authorizers not to “make renewal decisions … on the basis of political or community pressure.”

But political pressure to one person is democracy in action to the other.

“Political backlash is an attempt of constituents — parents, students, teachers — to communicate a strongly felt opinion towards a political actor that has authority over them,” Eden said. “That’s not something that should be short-circuited by policymakers; that’s something that that actor should have to reckon with directly.”

On one particularly pressing question about how to balance family demand and academic performance, the book is oddly silent: The topic of virtual charter schools.

Are these rapidly growing online schools, backed by DeVos and many choice advocates, an example of the innovation the authors seek? What to make of the apparently dismal academic performance — noted in multiple studies — of these schools? By what measures should they be judged?

Eden said he is open to additional regulation, but said he didn’t have a firm opinion on the topic, and not one of the book’s essays mentions virtual charter schools.

I saw the sign(s)

Demonstrators display frustration with DeVos at Denver protest

Protestors march from the Capitol to the Hyatt Regency Denver, where ALEC is holding their annual meeting. (Photos by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

“DeVos is DeWorst”

“Left or Right, We Can All See Wrong”

“School Librarians Say Shhhh! to Betsy!”

Those are some of the hundreds of colorful signs demonstrators carried at the Capitol Wednesday to protest U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ scheduled Denver visit.

The Trump appointee is expected to speak Thursday at a luncheon during the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Wednesday’s protest was organized by Denver school board candidate Tay Anderson with help from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Featured speakers included local activists, teachers and legislators. Demonstrators then marched from the Capitol to the Hyatt.

Here are some selected images from the demonstration.

During the school year, Andy Fine is an elementary school teacher in Loveland’s Thompson School District. This summer he’s interning with the CEA, and rallied more than 25 Thompson teachers and parents to drive to Denver for Wednesday’s action. “Someone’s gotta stand up for our kids,” he said. “My life and passion is standing up for kids.”

Jessica Price, a teacher at Overland High School in Aurora, brought her 6-year-old daughter Maycie Turner to the protest. “I’m here because what we’re doing is working,” she said. “People are getting the message.”

Mike Badar’s father taught in Flint, Michigan for 30 years. He said his biggest concern is DeVos will blur the line separating church and state. “She does not like history, and she wants to rewrite it based on her religious principles,” he said.

Denver Public Schools teacher Michael Durga waited calmly outside the Capitol for the protest to start Wednesday morning. Donning a T-shirt that read “Proud public school teacher,” Durga carried a colorful flag urging support for public schools and a sign themed after the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. “DeVos is a nightmare,” he exclaimed. “I want her to know that I am opposed to everything she stands for.”

Pam Wilson, a self-professed “concerned citizen,” marched from the Capitol to the Hyatt Regency spritzing fellow marchers and passerby with a spray bottle filled with water. She decorated the bottle with a crossed-out image of DeVos’s face. “It’s bear spray,” she laughed.

The man behind the Neil Gorsuch mask is Ian Kolsky, a DPS teacher. Kolsky and four others dressed as Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices. The demonstrators belong to a group called Move to Amend, which calls for a constitutional amendment limiting the rights of corporations.

Rallying cry

At DeVos protest, opponents seek to tie Trump education appointee to Denver school board

Hundreds of protesters circled the hotel where Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak Thursday. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Several hundred protesters, many of them teachers, gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to rail against what they called the privatization of public education under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is scheduled to give a speech in Denver Thursday.

With local school board elections looming in November, speakers at Wednesday’s rally sought to tie the policies championed by billionaire Republican DeVos to those enacted by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Democrats on the nonpartisan school board.

“In November, we have the opportunity to take our school board back!” said Rachael Lehman, a parent of an East High graduate.

She called for “a school board revolution,” saying “DeVos-style policies” have harmed Denver’s traditional schools, three of which the school board recently voted unanimously to close after years of lagging test scores.

DeVos has become a national target of teachers unions and progressive Democrats. Before Trump appointed her education secretary, she used her personal wealth to push for the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers, which unions staunchly oppose.

Unions in Colorado and across the country have already begun using DeVos’s image and unpopularity to push back against charter school-friendly legislation and policies. And more is expected during the fall school board elections.

Four seats on the seven-member Denver school board are up for grabs in this November’s election. All seven seats are currently held by members who support DPS’s brand of education reform, which embraces school choice, though not vouchers. Boasberg has repeatedly sought to differentiate DPS’s approach from DeVos’s.

“We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter,” he said earlier this year.

A sweep by candidates who oppose the district’s reforms could change its direction.

One of those candidates, recent Manual High graduate Tay Anderson, planned the rally, which drew teachers, parents, students and others from across the state. Toward the end, Anderson took the microphone to call out current Denver board members for attending.

“They want to show up when they need your vote!” he said.

“But we can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’”

Board member Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election, was at the rally, holding a sign he made that said, “What is scarier? Grizzly? Or Betsy?” To compare DPS’s policies to those promoted by DeVos, who has criticized the district, “is just a mistake,” he said.

“I think that everybody there, including myself, believes the Trump agenda for public education is disastrous,” Johnson said of rally attendees, “and I think that we ought to be fighting this fight together instead of using it for our own local purposes.”

Johnson was the only DPS board member Chalkbeat saw at the rally. Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who is also running for re-election, said she asked rally organizers if she could speak but “they made it clear that I wasn’t welcome.”

Some rally speakers appealed directly to DeVos. Denver teacher JoZi Martinez implored her to “leave public education to the experts: we the teachers and the administrators in the trenches.”

“This is not a monarchy and you are clearly not a queen, Ms. DeVos,” she said.

The crowd cheered when she urged DeVos to step down. Pleas to stop voucher programs, reduce standardized testing and provide free community college also got big applause.

Mentions of the group Democrats for Education Reform, which has been active in Denver school board elections, elicited loud boos. When state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and former public school music teacher, condemned members of his own party for supporting education reform, rally attendees began chanting “shame, shame!”

After the speeches, Anderson grabbed a bullhorn and led the protesters on a march to the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. They snaked around the city-block-sized hotel, waving signs and shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” among other chants.

The annual meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is taking place at the hotel Wednesday through Friday. On Thursday, DeVos is scheduled to address the lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders from around the country in attendance.

Another target of teachers unions, ALEC is known for providing its members with model legislation and policies that promote free-market education reform principles.