hard choices

New York City’s charter school leaders are not rallying behind school choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Angel Martinez, a member of the Parent Action Committee, protests in front of Eva Moskowitz's home in November.

When news broke that President-elect Trump tapped school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary, New York City’s charter school sector was relatively quiet. With the exception of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who tweeted she was “thrilled,” local charter school leaders and advocates have mostly kept to themselves.

That might seem surprising in a city where more than 100,000 students are educated in charter schools. But DeVos’ brand of school choice, which has so far has focused on fighting for private school vouchers and less charter oversight, is very different from the type than exists in New York City — and some local charter leaders appear wary of it.

“I think a great many charter supporters, and indeed charter founders, are deeply troubled by the idea of vouchers,” said Steve Wilson, CEO of the New York-based Ascend charter school network. “I would venture most charter school founders are liberal Democrats who are committed to social justice and would be very troubled by free market mechanisms.”

The distinction between charter schools and vouchers is key for Wilson. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run institutions. Vouchers, which can fund private schools, are much more radical, Wilson said, and lumping the two together does a disservice to charter schools.

“I would say that education choice is a double-edged sword,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link, a charter elementary school. “We as the charter school sector and the education community need to understand the damage that choice can cause.”

Evangelista and others in the sector also disagree with DeVos’ apparent stance on charter school regulation, which she fought in her home state of Michigan.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, did not comment publicly on DeVos, but he wrote an op-ed after Trump’s election on the importance of maintaining strong charter school oversight, instead of “simply growing the sector for growth’s sake.”

“A high-quality charter school sector is only possible when sound policy takes precedence over ideology,” Merriman wrote. “The bedrock of chartering isn’t that the marketplace or even choice will make good schools, as some Republicans, perhaps Trump included, seem to think.”

The DeVos family poured over a million dollars into legislative races when lawmakers were considering more charter school oversight in Detroit. Her work drew criticism for creating a “Wild West” policy environment and allowing failing charters to survive.

The charter sector in Michigan, which has an unprecedented number of for-profit charter schools, looks nothing like the sector in New York. In Michigan, there are many charter-school authorizers, some of which are strict while others are more lax, said Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative-learning Thomas Fordham Institute.

“There is a sense that in Detroit, nobody is in charge,” Petrilli said. That contrasts with New York, which has a small number of authorizers focused on school quality, he said.

Having a school-choice advocate associated with Trump also puts New York City’s sector in a bind. Particularly in the wake of the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, some in the sector are trying to win progressive support, rather than squander it.

New York City’s charter schools serve many low-income students of color, some of whom feel anxious and angry about the rhetoric Trump used during his campaign. Eva Moskowitz’s pledge to support Trump’s education efforts drew protesters outside her Harlem home.

“Some of it is probably guilt by association,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “You still have a president-elect who is viewed by many as having egged on and promoted racist and otherwise offensive points of view among his supporters.”

Still, some national and regional charter school groups have expressed support for DeVos. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sent a congratulatory release, and Andrea Rogers, New York state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, sent a statement saying she is “glad to see another charter supporter take the reins.”

But for most local organizations and schools, there seems to be little upside in embracing her. While the federal government can incentivize policy decisions, as it did with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, most important charter school decisions are decided at the state level. And since some charter schools receive grant money from the federal government, they may have an added incentive to steer clear of messy political arguments. If charter schools stay quiet now, they may benefit later, said Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation.

“There might be some political savviness right now to just holding back and preserving a place as a potential third way when big battles arise over school choice and privatization,” Potter said. “It could turn out that the big third way could be charter schools as way of expanding school choice.”

the secretary speaks

In departure from Trump, Betsy DeVos calls out ‘racist bigots’ in Charlottesville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos condemned “white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots” in an email to her staff Thursday — without mentioning President Trump, whose equivocal stance on the racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend has drawn widespread criticism.

“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” DeVos wrote.

The letter was more pointed — describing the racist views as “cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong” — than DeVos’ initial tweets on the events. She has been silent since those posts until now.

 

In her email to staff, she emphasized that individuals, and schools, had a part in combating hatred.

“We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear,” she wrote.

But DeVos did not specify what role, if any, the department’s policymaking would play. She has received persistent criticism from civil rights groups for proposed federal budget cuts, her stance on discrimination of LGBT students, and her appointment to head the Office of Civil Rights. (DeVos specifically notes that, “Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.”)

Meanwhile, criticism of Trump and Devos from education advocates has intensified in recent days.

New York City charter school leader Eva Moskowitz — who was initially considered for the job DeVos now holds, and who led Ivanka Trump on a school tour — released a strongly worded letter condemning the Trump administration (though she did not mention DeVos). On Twitter, Kevin Huffman, the charter-friendly former Tennessee education commissioner, called on DeVos to resign, saying, “It is not viable to serve all kids under a POTUS who defends and encourages white supremacy.”

This is on top of persistent hostility from many left-of-center charter advocates, including one of DeVos’s predecessors, Arne Duncan, who called bumps in federal spending for charters “blood money” if they came alongside to Trump’s proposed cuts to education.

The note was sent to staff, rather than posted as a press release. DeVos has not been shy in the past about weighing in on topics beyond education — she quickly issued a statement praising Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate change agreement, for example.

Here’s the text of her letter:

Team,

I write today with a heavy heart for our country. While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past.

There is fear, pain, anger, disappointment, discouragement and embarrassment across America, and I know, too, here within the Department.

Last weekend’s tragic and unthinkable events in Charlottesville, which stole three innocent lives and injured many more, were wholly unacceptable. The views of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal. We all have a role to play in rejecting views that pit one group of people against another. Such views are cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong.

This is what makes our work so important. Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.

Our own difficult history reminds us that we must confront, head-on, problems when and where they exist with moral clarity and conviction. Our nation is greater than what it has shown in recent days.

Violence and hate will never be the answer. We must engage, debate and educate. We must remind all what it means to be an American, and while far from perfect, we must never lose sight that America still stands as the brightest beacon for freedom in the world.

My hope is that we will use this as an opportunity to show that what unites and holds America together is far stronger than what seeks to divide and draw us apart. We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear.

Our work is truly the bridge to a stronger future. Let’s recommit ourselves to ensuring the future is brighter for all.

Betsy

choice for most

Chalkbeat explains: When can private schools discriminate against students?

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

Over $16 million of public funds went to Indiana private schools with anti-LGBT policies last year, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found.

You might be asking: Is it legal to discriminate against those students?

The answer is yes, and that’s become a focus of the national debate about school choice. (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fanned the flames on this one when she offered ambiguous answers about whether all students would be welcome in schools that participated in a potential national voucher program.)

But the rules are tricky when it comes to private schools, especially religious ones. Here’s your guide to understanding when, why and how private schools can say no to certain students.

Are there laws in place that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools. That means when it comes to gender and sexuality, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — is the main piece of legislation in play.

Title IX applies to private schools that accept federal funds — and many private schools do, usually through school breakfast or lunch programs, grants, or funding for low-income students.

However, some schools qualify for exemptions. All-boys or all-girls schools are allowed to restrict their admissions accordingly, for example.

Most important to the discussion of LGBT students: Private schools run by religious organizations are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” A majority of private schools in the U.S. are religious, which means that most private schools are free to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

In Indiana, Chalkbeat found that at least 27 schools that accept vouchers have policies that suggest or declare that LGBT students are unwelcome.

What about private schools that aren’t religious?

At non-religious private schools, Title IX’s nondiscrimination rules do apply. But a change in interpretation means the law offers fewer protections to transgender students than it has in the past.

Under the Obama administration, the ban on discriminating on the basis of sex was interpreted as related either to biological sex or to gender identity. However, the Trump administration rescinded guidance on that front — meaning the federal government considers Title IX to only bar discrimination based on a student’s biological sex.

Do any states have laws that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

Many states have implemented their own nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — in the world of public education. But no voucher programs have such policies in place, research shows.

As a result, private schools are free to turn away LGBT students while still receiving public funding for accepting vouchers.

What about other forms of discrimination?

Private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race if they want tax-exempt status. The executive director of the Council for American Private Education, Joe McTighe, said he wasn’t “familiar with any nonprofit private schools that elect against tax-exempt status.”

If private schools accept federal funds, they are also bound to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

When it comes to students with disabilities, private schools have more leeway to turn students away.

This is partly because students who choose to attend a private school — including through a voucher program — forfeit their right to a “free appropriate public education” that they are otherwise guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires private schools to accept students so long as only “minor adjustments” are needed to accommodate them. But it exempts religiously run private schools.

Under a third law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, those protections apply to religious schools, too — if the school receives federal funds.