on the record

Congressman Jared Polis is more worried about Congress than about Betsy DeVos. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Denver Post
Colorado Congressman Jared Polis

Colorado Congressman Jared Polis worries more about Congress creating bad education policy than about U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enacting it.

But that doesn’t mean the Boulder Democrat isn’t keeping an eye on the controversial new education secretary.

Polis, who was recently named the lead Democrat on the House’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee, said he believes the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, limits the authority of the secretary. That should give critics of DeVos comfort.

Still, Polis said he’ll be watching to make sure DeVos’s department adheres to the new law — especially its civil rights components.

Polis spoke with Chalkbeat last week about DeVos, the nation’s new education law that he helped pass, and other education topics.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You didn’t have a chance to weigh in on Betsy DeVos’s confirmation. What do you think of the new secretary?

I haven’t yet met Betsy DeVos. But I talked to her on the phone last week. I’m looking forward to getting together. I’ve invited her to Colorado. She reacted very positively to that. I expect to have her here in the near future. She was particularly interested in seeing some of our coding academies and the other nontraditional higher education options we have.

Both you and DeVos are champions of school choice. But there are differences between the two of you. How would you compare and contrast your philosophies?

I’m supportive of school choice that works. Choice for the sake of choice is not always the answer. What matter is, is there a good school to serve all kids? Schools can be run by a charter management organization, a school district. They can be innovation schools. It really doesn’t matter what type of school. What we care about is that every child has access to a high-quality education.

Historically, Betsy DeVos has been a supporter of choice for the sake of choice without regard to the quality of options. Meaning, let’s have more charters even if they’re bad charters. Let’s allow bad charters to operate. Let’s allow school districts to continue operating failing schools.

I’ve been consistently on the opposite side of that argument. If it’s a school that’s failing to get the job done — whether it’s a district school or a charter school — let’s have a real intervention to improve the quality for the kids in that area.

President Trump called on Congress to pass a bill that would support school choice. What do you hope to see in such a bill? What would you oppose?

I just testified last week in front of the appropriations subcommittee on education for the federal charter school program (a federal grant program that provides financial assistance for the planning and launch of charter schools). It’s $350 million a year. It’s tied to quality indicators states have to have. It ties into strong authorizing practices that districts have to have to ensure accountability and equity at the local level. So I’d love to see full funding of the federal charter school program. Not only does it improve the availability of high quality education options for kids, it also helps address the quality issue.

Vouchers for private schools?

I would not be inclined to support a federal program that forces a local school district to have vouchers. Obviously, we have districts in the country that have chosen to go that route. That’s their prerogative. Fundamentally, education is a locally-driven enterprise. So I’d be against the federal government forcing schools to create voucher programs.

What if the program was voluntary?

The big concern the Democrats would have is that those funds would be taken away from public education. When public schools serve 90 percent of kids and we don’t have enough to fully fund special education from the federal perspective or Title I, the last thing we need to do is take those resources away. I think Democrats would be more open to the discussion if the funds came from somewhere else.

There’s a charter school funding fight happening here at the state level. Any thoughts on that bill?

As a best practice, districts already should and in many cases do share their bonds and mill levies with their charter schools. It’s a best practice from a policy perspective and a political perspective. From a policy perspective, charters are very much a part of the school district and they should share in those tax increases. From a political perspective, it helps these mill levies and bonds pass when the charter school community feels good about them. I think it’s good to highlight the conversation at the state level. It’s appropriate that taxpayers fund all schools in their district.

Let’s talk about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. How do you see Colorado and other states enacting the law?

We’re waiting to see how the new secretary will interpret ESSA. I would say it’s likely she will allow even greater latitude in the state plans than the previous administration would have. Frankly, I hope they take the civil rights guardrails of ESSA seriously and don’t just put a rubber stamp on state education plans that fail to address equity and discrimination issues.

There’s a tension between flexibility and accountability and civil rights. How do you see those three tensions playing out under ESSA?

The goal of federal education policy — the spirit of ESSA — is to give states the flexibility to address income disparities and racial disparities in achievement. But not the flexibility to do nothing and allow them to persist. The reason why the federal guardrails are important is because we need to look at the state plans and ask, “Are states using their flexibility seriously to address the achievement gap?”

The fear of some is that we have a secretary who is going to be very hands off. What role do you see Congress in playing to hold her and school districts accountable?

Our committee will be the oversight committee in the House. Certainly, I’ll hold her accountable to the language of ESSA, which maintains a civil rights commitment. We want states and districts to have the flexibility to close the achievement gap, but not the flexibility to not act to address inequities in our education system.

What red flags will you be looking for?

Efforts to disguise metrics. Efforts to brush achievement gaps under the rug.

Do you think there is an appetite or need to rethink ESSA under the Trump administration?

I don’t think that’s likely to occur. It took 15 years to replace No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeed Act. It passed overwhelmingly. I’d be open to improvements and fixes if necessary. But I think the body of the law will work.

What do you say to teachers and parents who are very upset by DeVos and the Trump administration?

I was a big part of passing the Every Student Succeeds Act. Frankly, one of the things that did was remove some of the authority of the secretary. People were upset over the way former Secretary Arne Duncan exercised that authority. So this secretary will have less ability than Arne Duncan did through the unrestrained waiver process. (The Obama administration created waivers from No Child Left Behind in 2011 to give states flexibility after congressional efforts to update federal law stalled.)

I think it can be of some assurance to people that the vast powers of the secretary were curtailed. And there are more specific statutory guidelines for the secretary to follow.

There are some real threats out there. And many of them would require legislation — legislation that has passed the House in previous sessions but didn’t become law because of a Democratic president. I’d be very concerned about “Title I portability.”

What that means is siphoning money out of the schools that serve the most at-risk kids into wealthier schools that serve a much smaller percentage of poor kids. On the ground that means some of the schools that serve 70 or 80 percent of kids who receive free lunch might lose a teacher or two. And schools that serve a predominantly upper class population might gain a quarter of a teacher, which doesn’t really help them.

I worry more about Congress passing bad laws than the secretary enacting them.

President Trump recently withdrew federal guidance to schools on transgender students’ rights. What are your thoughts on that move?

I’m very disappointed. And I expressed over the phone to Secretary DeVos my disappointment. School districts need the guidance. School districts have an interest in avoiding costly lawsuits around these efforts. Many school districts want to do what’s right. And without knowing it’s right to provide a different bathroom or this or that, there are going to be parents on all sides of the issues fighting over these things. It was simple guidance that says, “Let students use the gender appropriate bathroom (of their choice).” It provided an additional safe harbor to prevent a costly lawsuit that takes money away from the classroom. So I was very disappointed to see that withdrawn.

What do you say to school communities who say this isn’t an issue for them or that they’re more concerned this will expose non-transgender females to attack?

Simply, the data doesn’t show that. The data shows transgender students themselves are more likely to be the victim of physical abuse and bullying. And allowing transgender students the ability to use the appropriate bathroom is actually reducing their risk of being bullied. It’s hard to imagine sending someone who presents as a young lady into the male restroom. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s a threat to her own safety. There are many kids who have had to drop out of school because of those unsafe situations. We always have to remember that our schools have to be a safe and civil place for every student.

Movers and shakers

Former Denver schools superintendent Tom Boasberg lands a new gig

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg, right, high-fives students, parents, and staff on the first day of school at Escalante-Biggs Academy in August.

Former Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg has been named superintendent of another organization 9,000 miles away: the Singapore American School in Southeast Asia.

Boasberg will start his new position July 1. He stepped down as superintendent of Denver Public Schools last month after nearly 10 years at the helm of the 92,000-student district. The Denver school board is in the process of choosing his successor.

Boasberg has spent significant time in Asia. After graduating from college, he taught English at a Hong Kong public school and played semi-professional basketball there. He later worked as chief of staff to the chairman of what was then Hong Kong’s largest political party.

He and his wife, Carin, met while studying in Taiwan. They now have three teenage children. In 2016, Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live in Argentina with his family. At the time, he said he and his wife always hoped to live overseas with their children.

“This gives us a chance as a family to go back to Asia,” Boasberg said, “and it’s something the kids are looking forward to, as well as my wife Carin and I.”

The Singapore American School is an elite non-profit school that was established in 1956 by a group of parents, according to its website. It now has more than 3,900 students in preschool through 12th grade, more than half of whom are American.

The school boasts low student-to-teacher ratios and lots of Advanced Placement classes, and sends several of its graduates to Ivy League colleges in the United States. Its facilities include a one-acre rainforest.

Boasberg notes that the school is also a leader in personalized learning, meaning that each student learns at their own pace. He called the school “wonderfully diverse” and said its students hail from more than 50 different countries. High school tuition is about $37,000 per year for students who hold a U.S. passport or whose parents do.

Leading the private Singapore American School will no doubt differ in some ways from leading a large, urban public school district. In his time as Denver superintendent, Boasberg was faced with making unpopular decisions, such as replacing low-performing schools, and the challenge of trying to close wide test score gaps between students from low-income families and students from wealthier ones.

“Denver will always be in my heart,” Boasberg said, “and we’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

it's official

Memphis schools chief Dorsey Hopson calls his work ‘a remarkable journey,’ but seeks new career at health care giant

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones/Chalkbeat
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson announces that he's resigning from the district to take a job with Cigna.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools to lead an education initiative at a national health insurance company effective Jan. 8.

Prior to his departure, the school board expects to name an interim before the district breaks for the winter holidays, giving the panel time to seek a permanent replacement, said board chair Shante Avant.

Hopson’s job with Cigna is a new national position in government and education that will be based in Memphis, he said. He called the decision a “difficult” one that he ultimately made because of the demands on his family that are part of his job as superintendent.

“It’s been a remarkable journey,” Hopson said. “I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made together.”

A likely successor the board could tap is Lin Johnson, who was hired in 2015 as chief of finance. Johnson previously was director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. He recently overhauled the district’s budget process to be more responsive to student needs rather than to a strict pupil-teacher ratio — a move Hopson lauded as a potential vehicle to reduce gaps in test scores for students of color living in poverty.

Hopson’s future has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks, especially after he endorsed Republican Bill Lee for governor in a race that the Williamson County businessman eventually won. A position in the governor’s office, or as education commissioner to succeed Candice McQueen, was considered among the possibilities for Hopson. But Hopson said on Tuesday that he would not be heading to Nashville to work for the Lee administration.

Cigna, Hopson’s future employer, is a Connecticut-based company that manages health insurance for about 19,500 district employees and retirees under a $24 million contract. The company is the third-largest health plan provider in Memphis with about 200 local employees, according to the Memphis Business Journal. In his new role, Hopson will help Cigna expand its services to school districts for health benefits and wellness programs.

“Having an individual with Hopson’s expertise in school administration and school district leadership in this role will be a great asset to Cigna’s consultative work serving K-12 schools,” a Cigna spokesperson said in a statement.

An attorney who had worked for school districts in Atlanta and Memphis, Hopson was named the first superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013 following the historic merger of city and county schools.

His hiring came on the cusp of massive change in Memphis’ educational landscape. The district’s student enrollment steadily declined after six suburban towns split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to create their own districts, and the state-run Achievement School District continued to siphon off students by taking over chronically low-performing schools in the city. Hopson and the school board eventually closed nearly two dozen schools to shore up resulting budget deficits.

Since then, under Hopson’s leadership, the district has gone from a $50 million deficit to investing more than $60 million in personnel, teacher and staff pay raises, and school improvement initiatives by lobbying for more county funding, dipping into the district’s reserves, closing underutilized schools, cutting transportation costs, and eliminating open job positions. The district has also sued the state in pursuit of more funding, and that lawsuit is ongoing.

“We have accomplished a great deal together, such as eliminating a $100 million deficit, investing more and students, and developing the Summer Learning Academy to prevent summer learning loss. That, in part, is what makes this decision so difficult,” Hopson said. “I would love to see this work to the finish line, but I feel confident that we have laid a strong foundation for the next leader.”

Now, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state-run district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from when Hopson took over. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban school district leaders.

“For the past six years, we have worked together to guide this great school district through monumental changes,” Hopson said. “Through it all, our educators and supporters have remained committed to aggressively increasing student achievement.”