Future of Schools

This Colorado conservative is taking a bigger role in expanding school choice across the nation

Michael Fields addresses a crowd at the Colorado Capitol. (Photo courtesy Americans For Prosperity)

For the past two years as Colorado state director of the conservative political group Americans For Prosperity, Michael Fields has advocated at the statehouse and the ballot box for free-market policies, including expanding charter schools.

Now, Fields is taking on a larger role with the organization, which grew out of the Tea Party movement and is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.

Fields’s new role helping Americans For Prosperity push school choice nationwide comes as the nation is having a renewed conversation about the issue. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have pitched a federal school choice program, which could provide vouchers to some students to use for private school tuition.

We asked Fields, a Teach for America alum who taught in the Denver suburb of Aurora, about his thoughts on the plan and what’s next for charter schools in Colorado and across the nation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about your new gig.

What we’re doing is engaging in long-term policy battles nationwide. Often AFP would work on a single ballot issue, or campaign. Rarely are we — or anyone — educating people about those broader issues.

For example, one of the issues we’re working on is educating people on education savings accounts, which were just created in Arizona and Nevada. Here in Colorado, we’re going to be doing a campaign on school choice in general. Support for school choice is pretty high: Can we get that higher? Some people still don’t know that charter schools are public schools — that you don’t have to pay tuition to attend.

We’re really focusing on broad policies, not fighting for a specific issue. We’re trying to change people’s opinion over the longer term.

Why now?

For a good amount of time, conservatives have had control over governors’ mansions and state legislatures. They’ve begun to pass policies that we would say are good. But they’re under attack all the time. People are uneducated about them. These big reforms have passed, and we need to get to a point where we’ve educated people enough where we don’t have to have big battles. We’re a long-term policy place. We’re not about partisan politics. So we need to be more coordinated on educating people on the issues we care about.

You say you’re nonpartisan, but when was the last time Americans for Prosperity supported a Democrat, or a Democratic idea?

We support conservative policies.

Here in Colorado, we’d thank all the Democrats who voted for the charter school funding equalization bill. And if you follow us, you know we hold Republicans accountable.

There are a lot of conservative Democrats in Southern states that support conservative policies. So we’ll give them a shout-out. I don’t know if that’s helpful to their career. But we’ll work with them. We want policy majorities regardless of the party.

Why is education reform important to AFP?

Education is the starting block for the rest of society. And right now, we’re creating a two-tiered society. Some people get a great education, they’re lined up for a job. But there is a whole group of people who have the deck stacked against them. It’s harder than it’s ever been to get from the bottom to the top in America.

Details on a federal choice program are still scarce. But what do you think of the Trump administration’s plans so far?

It will be interesting to see what comes out of it. They’re emphasizing that states should be driving this. Most of these issues will happen at the state level. And states are the best avenue to define what the education system looks like.

DeVos was criticized for comments she made regarding states creating voucher programs that could discriminate against some students, especially gay and transgender students, and students with special needs. What did you make of her comments and the backlash?

I think the backlash wasn’t that surprising. Look, there are certain federal standards around discrimination that are going to be upheld regardless. There is certain discrimination that shouldn’t happen. Anytime you’re taking federal money, that changes the ballgame.

There are two major philosophies in school choice: market-based and quality. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a strong proponent of the market-based approach, with little regulation over what schools open or close. Education reformers in Denver have argued that they have a role in ensuring quality schools are opened and bad ones are shut down. Which philosophy is yours more closely aligned to?

It’s both. You do need options, but you need quality control. You just can’t let anything go. That’s where school accountability comes in. If a charter school is not doing its job, it should be shut down, just like a district-run school should. Every year a kid is not getting a good education, he’s falling behind.

One of the critiques of school choice is that with competition there are ultimately winners and losers. What do you say to kids who go to a new school and it didn’t work?

The thing I’m concerned about is having one option that isn’t working. So if you’re in a district that is blocking charters, that isn’t open to anything else, and all you can do is send your child to a failing school, I think that’s the worst-case scenario. Competition means that there are going to be some losers. But they should be shut down and the kids should be moved to better options as quickly as possible.

What do you say to people who argue that charter schools aren’t held to the same standards?

I’m on the board of a charter school. I know we’re taking the same tests. We have to follow open-record laws. We have to do the civil rights paperwork. It is a public school that must meet the same standards. If you’re involved in a charter school, you know that. We also have additional challenges. For example, we have to manage our own money — we don’t have a district to float us money. We have to put out a good product to get kids to show up, to get parents to show up.

While charter schools are increasingly serving black and Latino students, charter schools are increasingly segregated. What should school choice advocates be thinking about regarding integration?

Part of it is that neighborhoods are this way — segregated. Whatever that neighborhood looks like, that school is going to look like. I grew up in Chicago. Every neighborhood was different.

For my family, diversity was very important. So, we were sent to a school that was like our family was — very diverse. (Fields is biracial.)

The school I’m on the board at is one-third white, one-third black and one-third Latino. A slight majority are low-income. Choice allows that diversity. And I think that it encourages diversity even more because you’re able to get out of your neighborhood.

But that doesn’t always play out that way. Here in Colorado, our charter schools are slightly more segregated than district-run schools.

It’s a societal question. I don’t think this is something can be fixed by the school system alone.

What do you see for the future of charter schools here in Colorado?

One thing is looking at exclusive charting authority — especially now that we have equal funding. We have districts, especially districts that are low-performing, that are trying to block charter schools from developing there. I think you’re going to have more push back against charters. And charters are going to have to go through the appeal process with the State Board of Education.

I think accountability will continue to be a piece on both the charter schools and the district side. Are we making sure that both district and charter schools are being held to the same standard?

What about charter school policy nationwide?

One of things I’m learning with this new role is just how diverse charter school policies are. Kentucky just started charter schools. Colorado’s had them for almost 25 years. It really varies state-to-state. That’s why I don’t think one federal choice program is the best thing for everybody. Different states are at different stages.


New report shows Indianapolis students lag on test improvement, but innovation schools may be a bright spot

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A new study finds mixed results for Indianapolis Public Schools dramatic shake-up in recent years: Students in schools within the district boundaries are below the state average when it comes to improvement on tests, but students at charter and innovation schools appear to be doing better.

Indianapolis Public Schools students are making smaller gains on math and reading tests than their peers across the state, according to a study released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, which looked at data from 2014-15 through 2016-17. It is the first in a series of studies examining 10 cities. In Indianapolis charter schools, students are about on par with peers across the state, researchers found.

“Indianapolis students persistently posted weaker learning gains in math compared to the state average gains in the 2014 through 2017 school years,” said Margaret Raymond, Director of CREDO at Stanford University in a press release.

The most highly anticipated part of the study, however, is the first major look at the results for innovation schools, a new kind of district-charter partnership. Results from innovation schools show some positive signs but still left unanswered questions.

The study found that students at innovation schools, which were created in 2015-16 and have been rapidly expanding, made gains in math and reading in 2016-2017 that were similar to the state average. But the gains are not to a statistically significant degree.

If the innovation schools are able to maintain the pace of student improvement, it would be a remarkable boon for the district. The study is also further evidence that at least some of the innovation schools are helping students make big gains on state tests. When 2016-17 state test scores were released, several innovation schools had jumps in passing rates. But the inconclusive nature of the results also highlights how hard it is to judge a program that is still in its infancy.

Since the district began creating innovation schools in 2015, their ranks have rapidly swelled. There are now 20 innovation schools, which enroll about one in four of Indianapolis Public Schools’ students.

Innovation schools have drawn national attention from advocates for collaboration between traditional districts and charter schools. They are under the Indianapolis Public Schools umbrella, and the district gets credit for their test results from the state. But the schools are run by outside charter or nonprofit managers. The network includes a variety of schools, including failing campuses that were overhauled with charter partners, new schools, and previously independent charters.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.