Weighing in

Tennessee teachers group cautions Alexander about Trump’s pick for ed chief

PHOTO: Courtesy betsydevos.com
Betsy DeVos of Michigan has helped shape her state's schools through advocacy and philanthropy and is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. secretary of education.

Tennessee’s second-largest teacher organization wants U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to hear teachers’ reservations about Betsy DeVos before voting whether to confirm her as the nation’s education chief.

In a letter to the Tennessee Republican released Wednesday, the leader of the Professional Educators of Tennessee questioned President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education due to her avid support for school vouchers and lack of experience in public schools.

2014-06_sq_jcbowman-3
PHOTO: ProEdTN.org
J.C. Bowman

“Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware,” writes executive director J.C. Bowman on behalf of the group’s 8,000 members.

Bowman said DeVos’ advocacy of using taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition may “well cloud her desired support of public schools.”

“We must focus on making our public schools successful,” Bowman writes. “…Choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.”

Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Alexander already has promised to ensure DeVos’ “swift nomination.”

DeVos, a Republican billionaire from Michigan, has never worked in public schools, but she and her husband, Dick, have been long-time advocates and philanthropists in support of school choice policies. Groups that receive funding from her have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Tennessee legislative races in the state’s ongoing tug-of-war over vouchers.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Alexander is a prominent voice on national education policy. A former governor of Tennessee and education chief under President George H.W. Bush, he has served in the Senate since 2003, and co-sponsored the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Alexander was quick to laud Trump’s selection of DeVos last month, calling her an “excellent choice.”

Bowman’s letter is significant because the Professional Educators of Tennessee strives to distance itself from either major party’s political agenda and does not spend money on political campaigns, though Bowman previously worked with Republican lawmakers in other states, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. By contrast, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization, often aligns itself with Democratic lawmakers.

TEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, has released a statement expressing similar reservations about DeVos, while national education groups that favor tuition vouchers have heaped praise on Trump’s choice. TEA also urged its members on Facebook to sign an open letter from NEA and the American Federation of Teachers expressing concerns about DeVos. 

Discussion on DeVos’ nomination among Tennessee’s education community has been confined mostly to social media, with few groups speaking out either in support or against Trump’s pick.

Here is Bowman’s letter in full:

Dear Senator Alexander,

Thank you for your continued leadership as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act. A strong public education system is a key to our democracy, a foundation to build our economy, and the means by which we can help all Tennessee children achieve their dreams.

Professional Educators of Tennessee is the fastest growing teacher association in our state. We are non-partisan and our organization is unaffiliated with the national teacher unions. Not all educators are members of the NEA or AFT. In fact, there are more educators that are members of independent education associations than the AFT. We are completely funded by the dues of our members. Our members are educators from the state of Tennessee. We do not endorse political candidates, or use their members’ dues to fund political candidates.

I have worked with you previously on numerous occasions from American Legion Boy’s State as a teenager, to various political endeavors, and to address numerous public education challenges within the state of Tennessee. Today, I am writing to share our organization’s reservations in regards to the nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos for the position as Secretary of Education.

There are two issues of immediate concern for our members. The first is that Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

The second issue, her advocacy of vouchers funded through the use of public tax dollars, may well cloud her desired support of public schools. Vouchers are not a magic bullet, and may do little to improve the quality of public schools. Vouchers are also not a solution to problems in urban cities. These cities face societal challenges well beyond the classroom door. Most communities lack the number of high quality private schools to meet any real demand created by vouchers. It is clear that for now and the foreseeable future, a vast majority of children will be educated by public schools. We must focus on making our public schools successful. Therefore, choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.

I appreciate your strong support of students, educators, and public education in Tennessee, especially your commitment to local control of public education. We encourage Ms. DeVos to go out and visit our public schools and see the incredible things that educators are doing every day across our state and nation. We think she would be amazed. We welcome a dialogue with Ms. DeVos and yourself to address our concerns and invite you both to talk directly to our members to assure them that as Secretary of Education she will support the mission of public schools and has the necessary experience in improving them.

Warmest Regards,

JC Bowman, Ph.D

Executive Director

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.