deconstructing devos

How New York City’s education world is reacting to Trump education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos answers questions during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

In the hours before and after Betsy DeVos appeared for her Senate confirmation hearing, New York City’s education community began asking how Trump’s education secretary nominee could affect the largest school system in the country.

Their reactions are varied. Some — including United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew — have sounded the alarm that DeVos’s stated interest in expanding school choice could strip funding from traditional public schools.

Others expressed concern that DeVos appeared to not grasp certain key features of federal education policy related to students with disabilities and how student performance is evaluated.

Meanwhile, the head of the city’s largest charter network said DeVos is the right pick for the job.

Here are some of the more notable reactions:

Educators for Excellence, an organization that helps teachers get involved in education policy, pointed out that DeVos has little experience in public schools and there are a number of key issues — such as school segregation and teacher evaluations — where DeVos’s position is still unknown.

“Given the fact that she has no experience as either a teacher or school administrator, we are distressed by the lack of details offered by Ms. DeVos as to how she will address some of the many challenges facing our public education system,” Evan Stone, an E4E cofounder, said in a statement.

In a press conference before the confirmation hearing, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that a voucher program, which DeVos has lobbied for at the state level across the country, would be a difficult sell.

“There is a tremendous feeling for public education in this country, including in rural districts, including in red states, and anything that might undercut resources for our public schools is going to meet with a lot of opposition,” de Blasio said at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, according a transcript. “Just look at the whole movement nationally on some of the high-stakes testing issues, and it tells you a lot. So I think it’s a real concern, but I don’t think it will be easy if [DeVos] is confirmed.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, a de Blasio ally, was more convinced that if DeVos were confirmed, federal policy could potentially reshape the local education landscape. If private and religious schools are able to cherry-pick students from the public school system, he said, public schools would increasingly serve only the students who aren’t admitted to private school or are more expensive to educate.

“She believes that a market system is the only thing that should be allowed,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “The people who are in it for the money don’t want [high-need] students.”

Advocates for Children, which helps secure services for students with disabilities and low-income families, expressed concern that DeVos appeared to be confused about how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act works.

“It is really troubling for Ms. DeVos to say that enforcement of the rights of students with disabilities should be left to the states,” AFC Executive Director Kim Sweet wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “Even though she seemed to correct herself when she heard that a federal law guarantees these students their rights, her remarks show an inclination toward minimizing the federal role that could leave students with disabilities very vulnerable.”

Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed statewide advocacy group, expressed concern about DeVos’s record of supporting public financing for private schools and deregulation of the charter sector.

“Here in New York, we’ve ​seen firsthand that billionaires involved in ​our ​public schools push for privatization despite a lack of oversight or accountability. The tens of millions of children in our public schools across this nation deserve a secretary of education that will lead with their best interest in mind. DeVos’s track record has proven otherwise,” Advocacy Director Zakiyah Ansari wrote in a statement.

But not all of the reaction was skeptical. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who leads the city’s largest charter network and was herself floated as a possible education secretary, threw her support firmly behind DeVos.

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.