in her own words

Rave reviews: Here are the states, schools, and programs that have gotten Betsy DeVos’s seal of approval

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might not have ever worked in a school system or state education department, but she’s been getting up to speed fast on what they’ve been doing.

And unlike her boss, who issues insults so freely that people track his targets, DeVos talks a lot about the things she likes. In her speeches, she’s been citing program after program that she supports, often with remarkable specificity. Together, they offer a look at what issues — school choice! — and what parts of the country she is focused on first.

For your reference, we’ll be keeping a running list of the K-12 initiatives that get a public DeVos seal of approval here. Did we miss something? Let us know.

 CALIFORNIA’s support for career and technical education:

California has been forward-leaning in implementing career and technical education programs that deliver results: The state now offers more than 13,000 courses that meet the admissions requirements of the University of California system.

California has also invested in Linked Learning programs across the state that integrate industry-based learning at the college-prep level, allowing students to acquire the skills needed to begin a high-potential career right after graduation. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

CLEVELAND’s technology training:

Another example is Cleveland’s “Project Lead the Way.” Project Lead the Way connects students with engineering businesses and organizations in the community. Children learn relevant subjects such as coding, robotics, and in some cases, 3D printing. This type of hands-on experience encourages students to engage in ways the traditional classroom often does not, and it introduces them to skills and subject-areas with high-potential futures. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

DENVER’s student transportation efforts (more from Chalkbeat here):

In Denver, represented today by Happy Haynes, the district is currently providing transportation to children from underserved areas to schools in other regions of the city. This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options. The “Success Express,” as it’s called, is a great example of how LEAs are leveraging federal, state and local funds to best serve children. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

FLORIDA’s dual-enrollment programs:

I think dual-enrollment is a great option for high schoolers that want to earn college credit and get a jump on their college, their post-high school studies. And Valencia [College in Orlando] is clearly addressing that need in a meaningful and major way. It’s a model that can be replicated in many other communities. (March 24 interview with Orlando’s WFTV)

FLORIDA’s tax credit scholarship program:

One young lady, Denisha Merriweather, failed the third grade twice at her assigned traditional school in Florida. Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic. She appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of her brother and mother, who both dropped out of high school.

But Denisha’s godmother intervened, and, because of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Denisha was able to attend a school that better met her needs.

Now Denisha is not only the first in her family to graduate from high school, but she also graduated from college and, this May, she will receive her master’s degree in social work. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

FLORIDA’s St. Andrew Catholic School:

INDIANAPOLIS’s “innovation schools” initiative (more from Chalkbeat here):

These schools are under the governance of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, but they are freed up to operate independently and thus better attune themselves to the unique needs of their students.

I want to bring School 15 to your attention as an example of new thinking. School 15 has struggled for years with low-test scores, and the state gave it an “F” in 2016.  But in recent months, parents and teachers in Indianapolis have come together to propose School 15 become a “neighborhood-run” school under the “innovation schools” program.

This isn’t a school run by an outside, third-party operator – this is a school where parents are in direct control. The community takes ownership of developing the school’s structure, staffing and performance. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

MICHIGAN’s program to help people with disabilities join the workforce:

In my home state of Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley joined forces with state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein to level the playing field for a group that’s consistently underrepresented in the overall workforce: people with disabilities.

The initiative, MI Hidden Talent, provides training and resources to help businesses adopt inclusive hiring practices. (March 15 speech to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

MICHIGAN’s The Potter’s House private school:

After visiting The Potter’s House, a small private school in my hometown that provides scholarships to low-income, mostly minority students, I saw the struggle of so many families who were just trying to access the same opportunities and choices for their children that my husband and I had for ours. Schools like The Potter’s House gave kids the chance to succeed and thrive, but for every student who got the chance to attend The Potter’s House, I knew there were others stuck in schools not meeting their needs. (March 13 speech to the Council of the Great City Schools, and a number of other mentions)

MICHIGAN’s City High Middle School:

In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, City High Middle School is nationally recognized and is ranked the third-best school in the state. Forty-five percent are minority students, and 98 percent of all students are enrolled in IB programs.

In conversations with parents and students who are part of City High, it’s clear how much they appreciate and value the opportunity that school provides. (Feb. 15, speaking to Magnet Schools of America national conference)

MILWAUKEE’s school choice program:

The longest-running program in the country, Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, is located in Lt. Gov. Kleefisch’s state of Wisconsin.

That program started in 1990, and is now one of four private choice programs in Wisconsin, serving more than 33,000 students in that state. If you add to that the population attending the state’s public charter schools, more than 76,000 students in Wisconsin are able to attend a school of their parents’ choosing.

One of these schools is St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, which serves almost exclusively students from low-income families.

One of those students, Jeffrey, described his education experience prior to attending St. Marcus as “setting him up to fail.” His traditional schools simply didn’t meet his academic needs.

When he enrolled at St. Marcus everything changed for him.

Jeffrey’s teachers took special interest in him, and today he’s a college graduate and works as an architectural designer. And he credits his success to the support of his family and his teachers at St. Marcus. (March 15, speaking to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

NEVADA’s turnaround school district:

One of those 25 programs is the Nevada Achievement School District, which was launched this year. The state identified the schools that were persistently underperforming, and has instructed the achievement school district to provide the families attending those schools with up to six high-quality, local options.

This is but the first step in helping more than 57,000 children attending Nevada’s underperforming schools, but it is a step in the right direction. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

WASHINGTON state’s support for virtual schools:

Another student I met, Sandeep Thomas, grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India with absent and neglectful parents. Sandeep was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey but continued to suffer from the experiences of 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 state, where Sandeep was able to join a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the comfort of his own home and develop at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, and also having earned 39 hours of college credit. Today, he’s working in the finance industry and is a public advocate for increased school options that allow students like him a chance to succeed. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

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.