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

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.