debating charters

Sen. Michael Bennet to Betsy DeVos: Come visit Denver, where school choice is different

U.S. Sen Michael Bennet (Denver Post photo)

Could the next Republican secretary of education soon be visiting Denver Public Schools, a popular destination for the last two Democrats who’ve held the job?

Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet of Colorado extended the invitation to Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing Tuesday. But not before drawing a stark contrast between Denver’s approach to school choice and what has played out in DeVos’s native Michigan.

Bennet said that in Denver, “without exception we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability. And as far I can tell, Detroit has followed the opposite path.”

DeVos said she’d “love to” take Bennet up on the offer to visit Denver, but disputed the former DPS superintendent’s characterization.

In the time he was given to question DeVos, Bennet said he supports giving parents choices among high-quality public schools, including charter schools. However, Bennet said his goal has never been “school choice for its own end,” but high-quality public schools for every child from every neighborhood.

He then cited Denver’s strategy of authorizing charter schools, creating innovation schools that operate with many of the same freedoms as charters, and strengthening traditional schools.

DeVos said she looked forward to “correcting some of the record” about Detroit schools and disputed that Michigan lacks school accountability, characterizing that as “false news.”

The state of Michigan’s charter sector has emerged as central to the debate over DeVos’s qualifications to serve as education secretary. The billionaire philanthropist has been a leading architect of free-market-style school choice policies in Michigan that have proven divisive in Detroit, where the public schools are in dire straits.

Critics assert that Michigan charter schools can open wherever they want, shut down without notice and operate with less oversight than charters in some other parts of the country.

DeVos defenders say she’s created educational opportunities for families that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, noting that Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers.

In an interview Tuesday after the confirmation hearing, current DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Bennet in contrasting the Colorado and Michigan charter sectors’ differences in quality and accountability.

He said that as a result, charter schools are better integrated into the Colorado public school system on issues such as fair enrollment systems and serving special education students.

Recent data show students with mild to moderate special needs are now served equally in district-run schools and charter schools, and Denver’s charter schools lack some of the barriers to entry that distinguish charter schools in other urban districts.

Critics of Denver charter schools say they lack adequate financial transparency, get credit for serving students who are more likely to succeed and don’t offer a true choice because a lack of transportation prevents many families from enrolling.

Boasberg and Bennet have known each other since childhood, and Boasberg joined DPS in 2007 as chief operating officer during Bennet’s tenure as superintendent.

Told of Bennet’s comments, Boasberg said his guess is what Bennet “was trying to point out is that you can have a very strong charter sector in which there is a very clear set of opportunities and accountabilities and very intentional efforts to make sure that our charter schools maintain a high degree of autonomy in their academic program, and at the same time function as public schools in every sense of the word.”

Bennet later lamented the restrictions on the confirmation hearing:


Outgoing Secretary of Education John King and his predecessor, Arne Duncan, both visited Denver schools.

Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar contributed to this report. 

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.