DeVos Divide

On eve of DeVos vote, Alexander hears from protesters across Tennessee

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Citizens congregate Monday in front of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's Memphis office to speak out against Betsy DeVos's nomination as the nation's next secretary of education.

Holding a megaphone in one hand and a “No 2 DeVos” sign in the other, Will Kelley expressed incredulity that, as a high school teacher in Tennessee, he has more public education experience than the next possible U.S. secretary of education.

“(My students) deserve a quality public education. They deserve someone who knows what they’re doing. I deserve a boss who knows what they’re doing. Betsy DeVos has no clue what she’s doing,” said Kelley, who teaches history at Kirby High School in Memphis.

Kelley was among about 100 educators and parents who gathered Monday afternoon outside U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office in downtown Memphis to protest DeVos’s nomination on the eve of her confirmation vote by a Senate panel he chairs. Other protests were held in Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kirby High School teacher Will Kelley speaks out.

The Memphis demonstration was organized by a group of education and civil rights organizations calling themselves the Tennessee Organizers Against Betsy DeVos. They include the United Education Association of Shelby County, Tennessee PTA, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence, and Black Lives Matter Memphis.

President Donald Trump’s choice of DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education has been among his most contentious cabinet picks. In Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month, the Michigan billionaire acknowledged that she has little to no direct experience in public education.

As such, many educators and parents have said DeVos is unqualified because her only connection to public education has been advocacy and philanthropy — not as a parent, teacher or administrator. But school choice advocates have praised her philanthropy to expand charter schools and private school vouchers in Michigan.

Alexander has called DeVos an “excellent choice” and indicated that he will support her. The Tennessee Republican is himself a former U.S. secretary of education, from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Alexander said there is value in an education secretary who is not entrenched in the system.

“I recruited David Kearns, the head of Xerox to be deputy secretary when I was education secretary,” Alexander told senators. “He used to tell me it was difficult to reform public education from within. She is from outside public education in that sense, just as David Kearns was and does anyone really expect President Trump to appoint someone from the education establishment to be education secretary?”

Read more about her legacy in Michigan. Can Betsy DeVos be blamed for the state of Detroit’s schools? What you need to know

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said DeVos’s support of vouchers and for-profit charter operators in Michigan is a threat to traditional school funding and strong accountability for charter schools.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pamela Moses, co-founder of Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter, speaks at Monday’s rally.

“School choice is really an illusion,” Rucker said. “In her home state of Michigan, the results of the overall test scores for charter schools are lower than traditional public schools. That is an injustice to our students and our communities. And that is an injustice that we cannot afford to risk with America’s public education system.”

Pamela Moses, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Memphis, said she fears DeVos would divert funding from public schools, and that a decreased investment in schools would lead to an increase in crime.

“When they close the schools down, the neighborhood starts to deteriorate. When the neighborhood starts to deteriorate, the blight and the crime comes in,” Moses said.

Across the nation, Senate offices have been swamped with calls, emails and letters criticizing Trump’s pick on education. Despite the pushback, DeVos is likely to be confirmed by the full Senate. She only needs Republican support, and the GOP controls the U.S. Senate 52 to 48.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include Sen. Alexander’s remarks Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.

Coming to Tennessee

Betsy DeVos to address Jeb Bush’s education summit in Nashville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos is scheduled this month to make her first visit to Tennessee as U.S. secretary of education.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush convenes his foundation’s annual education summit in Nashville this month, he will welcome the person he championed to be the nation’s education chief: Betsy DeVos.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education announced this week that DeVos will address its summit on Nov. 30 after Bush opens the gathering of education leaders from across the nation.

The speech will mark DeVos’s first official visit to Tennessee since the Michigan billionaire became President Trump’s secretary of education in February.

It also will reunite two old friends. Bush and DeVos worked closely together to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Politico reported this month that it was Bush who recommended DeVos for the cabinet job to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who led Trump’s White House transition team.

The upcoming addresses by DeVos and Bush are expected to offer a one-two punch on the merits of school choice, even as one of the movement’s primary vehicles — charter schools — have dropped substantially in popularity, according to a recent Education Next poll among both Democrats and Republicans.

The group’s 10th annual summit also will convene in a state that has consistently rejected vouchers as an alternative for students attending low-performing public schools.  Even as money has increasingly flowed into Tennessee to promote vouchers and voucher candidates, including cash from DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the proposal to provide students with state-funded tuition to attend private schools failed again this year to clear the state’s House of Representatives. (The Senate has passed the legislation three times. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January.)

In announcing DeVos’s address on Thursday, the foundation trumpeted her as a longtime “advocate for children and a voice for parents.”

“As secretary, DeVos continues to advocate for returning control of education to states and localities, giving parents greater power to choose the educational settings that are best for their children, and ensuring that higher education puts students on the path to successful careers,” the announcement says.

DeVos will face a friendly audience of mostly like-minded reformers at the Nashville summit, but the reception she will receive outside is less certain; the city last year voted mostly for Democrat Hillary Clinton, even as the state gave Trump a solid win.

DeVos has been greeted by jeers and protests across America during her recently completed “Rethink School” tour. In Tennessee, anti-DeVos educators and parents congregated outside of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s home offices on the eve of her confirmation vote by the Senate panel he chairs. Both of Tennessee’s senators also were deluged with phone calls before they ultimately cast their votes for Trump’s pick.

Bush launched his foundation in 2009 to promote the education model he led in Florida as governor: expanding private and charter school choice initiatives, holding back third-graders who failed reading tests, and awarding letter grades to schools based largely on test score performance.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Last year’s “ExcelinEd” summit in Washington, D.C., convened more than a thousand educators, policy experts and legislators from 47 states. Speakers included former education chiefs Arne Duncan, William Bennett and Rod Paige and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served as the foundation’s interim leader during Bush’s failed 2016 quest for the White House.

This year’s event likely will include a focus on expanding the role of education technology in schools. Both DeVos and Bush have embraced tech-infused personalized learning and fully virtual schools. Online charter schools, though, have faced a wave of negative research and press, including a recent Chalkbeat investigation into a struggling school in Indiana. One of several sponsors of the summit is K12, the largest operator of virtual charters.

(Disclosure: The Summit’s list of sponsors also includes several supporters of Chalkbeat. You can find our list of major donors here.)