guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

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.)