Betsy DeVos

Head of Democrats For Education Reform blasts DeVos, calls push for vouchers a ‘sideshow’

PHOTO: Will Caldwell / Vimeo
Shavar Jeffries, head of Democrats for Education Reform.

It’s a tough time to be a Democrat for education reform.

After eight years with one of the original DFER members, President Obama, in the White House, the well-financed organization is under siege from both the left and right.

On one side are fellow progressives critical of the expansion of charter schools and test-based school accountability — whose backlash was epitomized by the rejection of an initiative to expand charters in Massachusetts, which was backed by DFER’s chapter there. On the other side are Republicans who are most interested in pushing for public funding of private schools and are skeptical of testing and standards, including the Common Core. Add President Trump to that mix, whose support of charter schools may alienate Democrats otherwise open to supporting them.

With all that in mind, Chalkbeat sat down with DFER’s president Shavar Jeffries at the New Schools Venture Fund summit to ask, what now?

Fighting Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration at large, he said, arguing that their policies are likely to harm students inside and outside of schools. He also defended charter schools as effective options for kids, saying they have to comply “with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, [and] have to be transparent in terms of their finances.” (This point, it’s worth noting, isn’t true in many cases, and remains a point of significant controversy.)

Jeffries also discussed school integration (he’s for it but said it’s not politically viable); school vouchers (he’s skeptical but unwilling to dismiss them out of hand); and the political divide in education reform.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: How do you think it’s gone with Secretary DeVos so far?

Jeffries: I think it hasn’t gone well. I think what we’ve seen from her has been very disappointing on many levels. There seems to be a lack of commitment to any meaningful federal role in terms of accountability — we’re very worried about what we’re going to see coming out of the ESSA accountability process. We obviously saw the skinny budget, which we saw cut 13 percent from the DOE, $9 billion, cutting after-school programs, cutting teacher preparation programs, cutting out of the Pell grant surplus, eliminating the supplemental education opportunity grant programs. All of that is very disappointing.

There seems not to be a commitment to civil rights equity and enforcement. The candidates we’ve seen who are up for that position really don’t have a background in terms of civil rights enforcement. So, very disappointing.

And then frankly the administration more broadly for kids — it’s not just what happens within DOE but the social safety net, the cuts to the community development block grant program, the cuts to the housing programs, the cuts to the food stamp programs, kicking 24 million people off of healthcare, more aggressive enforcement in deportations, which affect large numbers of our kids. On every level we think it’s been horrible for children, so we’re fighting against it.

How are you fighting against it?

On every level. We’re fighting on the communications front, in partnership with DFERs throughout the country in Congress to push back against this; we’re fighting at the state and local level to protect our DREAMers, to ensure that immigration agents aren’t showing up at schools to deport children; mobilizing DFERs throughout the country to fight for increased investments in our kids, in after-school programs, teacher prep, higher ed.

Do you support Secretary DeVos’s push to expand private school choice through vouchers and tax credit scholarships?

We don’t even know what that is. We haven’t seen any specific plan from her.

We support choice through the public charter sector, so we support increases in the federal charter school program. We’ll see what her proposal is, but to the extent it is a proposal where money is going to for-profit providers, to the extent it’s a proposal where there’s going to be partial vouchers that don’t cover the cost of tuition, to the extent that it’s a proposal where there’s going to be lax accountability, we wouldn’t support any of those types of proposals.

Are there any state voucher programs that you think are good and would support?

We just don’t do a lot on vouchers, and in a lot of ways vouchers are really a sideshow — you have 50 million kids in public schools, 3 million in public charter schools, about 400,000 in voucher programs.

We would say to DeVos that public school choice is a great thing. Focus where we already have a track record of what works, which is the public charter sector. The idea of taking scarce federal resources and investing them in a set of programs that are not proven doesn’t make a lot of sense for us, whereas you get much more leverage, you get much more return for every dollar invested in terms of student outcomes for kids, investing in the federal charter school program. That’s what we encourage her to do.

If they’re going pursue some sort of voucher program, we’ll examine it whenever they put it together, but to us fundamentally it’s a sideshow. It addresses a very small number of kids. Again, any kid that we can do something positive for, we’re always going to support, but we’re really focused holistically on the entirety of what it is DOE’s proposing and what it means for kids.

One criticism I’ve heard of DFER is that by supporting charter schools you’re pushing the slippery slope toward vouchers, toward what critics would call privatization. I’d love for you to respond to that.

I just think that’s a false critique. It’s not a slippery slope to support public schools that are accountable to the public, that have to comply with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, that have to be transparent in terms of their finances, that are non-profit, so there’s not any profit motive, there’s not any distribution of any margins to investors — but to bring innovation to public education. We’re focused on what works for kids. We have a strong track record of public charter schools doing great things for kids.

We’ve seen in other domains — in the healthcare space, we see that public healthcare benefits leverage both hospitals and doctors who are run by governmental bureaucracies as well as nonprofit hospitals, as well as doctors who work for nonprofits. Same in the housing space — you have public housing run by governmental bureaucracies and then you also have nonprofit community development corporations that provide housing. To us it’s the same sort of model. We don’t see any slippery slope at all because they’re held accountable to the same rules, the same standards, the same kind of values that motivate public investment.

Are you concerned about virtual charter schools, when some research shows that students at these virtual schools, which are expanding in some states, make a lot less learning gains in a year?

If it’s virtual and kids aren’t coming into school, we’d be extremely skeptical of that. I wouldn’t want to just rule it out of hand.

We’re categorically opposed to for-profit providers running schools. It’s hard enough to educate particularly vulnerable kids with available resources — we don’t know how people can figure out how to educate kids and then distribute profits to investors. Furthermore, we haven’t seen the track record of people able to do that.

We focus on the core areas that affect most kids. That’s our disappointment with DeVos — there’s just so much focus on all these various permutations of choice and there’s not enough focus on the bread and butter, what needs to happen in classrooms every day to educate babies.

We obviously deeply believe in public choice in the form of public charter schools, but that has to be married with good instructional practice, making sure we have the right teachers in the classroom, making sure we have the right professional development, making sure we have the right instructional materials, making sure that those instructional materials are aligned with globally competitive standards. The bread and butter work, we don’t hear about that.

A lot of people have talked about the importance of school integration recently. Is that something that DFER has worked on much, wants to work on, is working on?

I’m a civil rights lawyer, so personally I have a lot of background in this. Organizationally, we haven’t spent a lot of resources in this space.

What I would say though is the data show that integrated classrooms are best for everybody — not only students of color, but white students as well. It fosters citizenship, people get to know one another, proximity breeds commonality in ways that are irreplaceable. When kids are talking to one another, in school with one another, it breaks down a lot of cultural and ethnic stereotypes. That’s good. So, sure, integration we think would be very positive.

Unfortunately there’s not many levers to bring that about now — the Supreme Court has really undercut over the last 30 years governmental efforts to coerce integration. Recent decisions, several terms ago in the Kentucky case made it even more difficult to have voluntary integration programs.

There’s not a political will to bring about integration; there’s very much a not-in-my-backyard attitude that a lot of parents and families have. We even see in New York — which by national standards is more progressive than other parts of the country — there’s a lot of pushback of efforts to bring about more integrated schools there.

I think it’s good for everybody personally — white and students of color — I just don’t see any realistic political capacity to bring it about, unfortunately. I think it’s bad for our country. Part of the cultural and ethnic division we have is because people aren’t proximate to one another, they aren’t talking to one another. If we learn about one another through the media, no wonder there’s so much misunderstanding and polarization in our country.

You’re on a panel about the left–right divide in education reform. Could you talk about where you think the reform movement stands on that left–right issue? Do you think it’s important for left-of-center reformers like yourself to work with more conservative ones?

I think it’s important to have more values-based conversations and coalitions around what’s best for kids.

I’ve heard from some folks that DFER is opposed to DeVos or opposed to certain types of policies because we’re Democrats. We’re like, no we’re opposed to this because we love children.

For us it’s not a Democrat thing. We spend most our time fighting Democrats because of our values. When we fight the union and old-guard Democrats, which is honestly what we spend most of our time doing, we don’t fight them because they’re Democrats; we fight them because we think they’re wrong on what’s right for kids.

In the same way we can fight them, damn right we’re going to fight Trump, DeVos, anybody who we believe is making it harder for our children to fulfill their potential. That’s the message I’m going to have — that if you say you’re here to advocate for kids and then we see policies that seek to gut the health of the communities where these families come from, don’t come to talk to me and say, “That’s outside the school, I can’t talk about that.”

I’ve heard from some, “That’s outside the school building, why should we talk about that? That may fray the coalition.” I’m like, then what coalition do you think we’re in? I’m in a coalition to fight for babies. If that child is going to be deported, I can’t say, hey, you know, what that’s not within however you define the four corners of what you think a school is responsible for. I’m saying you misdefined your role.

Historically, educators have always done this. Historically, educators have always fought to make sure their kids were fed and had access to healthcare. It’s only in spaces like this where people have to debate should we fight for food for children, should we fight for access to healthcare for children, should we fight for environmental health to make sure kids aren’t drinking lead when they go home, let alone within the school or that there aren’t environmental toxins. Only here do we debate that.

We’re also mindful, too, we can fight on this and work together on that. That’s OK, and that’s cool too. That’s part of the message I’m going to have. Look, if some of you all want to convince yourself that you don’t need to fight for food security or health care access or fight against mass incarceration — if you don’t think that’s going to affect kids, affect their educability, I think you’re smoking crack — but if that’s what you want to do, do that. I’m going to fight you on that, but if on charters or teacher prep or higher ed we can work together, we can do that. When we come back over here, I’ve got to put my foot in your butt because I think you’re doing things to hurt my babies.

On that point, could you see yourself working with the Trump–DeVos administration if there are areas of agreement?

It’s just hard to imagine what those might be.

Charter schools?

I just think the Trump administration is such a disaster on so many different levels. The character of — and I’m talking about Trump right now, not DeVos — the administration seems to be one that you can’t trust. They say one thing one day and say something totally different the next day.

It’s hard to work with people like that because you may think that you’re on the same page but then find out you’re not. The HBCU presidents, I think, thought there was a commitment; then when there was a signing for the budget, Trump is questioning whether or not it’s even constitutional to invest in HBCUs. Then a couple weeks later, now, maybe they’re trying to say something different. The challenge is character.

You can always work with people on policies where you agree, but when you don’t trust the character of the person you’re trying to partner with, it’s hard to work together because they may switch 24 hours later, and then you may have lost the credibility that you have worked hard to maintain. That’s what I say about Trump because he’s the leader of this administration. That makes it very difficult to work with folks you can’t trust.

choice for most

Chalkbeat explains: When can private schools discriminate against students?

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

Over $16 million of public funds went to Indiana private schools with anti-LGBT policies last year, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found.

You might be asking: Is it legal to discriminate against those students?

The answer is yes, and that’s become a focus of the national debate about school choice. (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fanned the flames on this one when she offered ambiguous answers about whether all students would be welcome in schools that participated in a potential national voucher program.)

But the rules are tricky when it comes to private schools, especially religious ones. Here’s your guide to understanding when, why and how private schools can say no to certain students.

Are there laws in place that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools. That means when it comes to gender and sexuality, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — is the main piece of legislation in play.

Title IX applies to private schools that accept federal funds — and many private schools do, usually through school breakfast or lunch programs, grants, or funding for low-income students.

However, some schools qualify for exemptions. All-boys or all-girls schools are allowed to restrict their admissions accordingly, for example.

Most important to the discussion of LGBT students: Private schools run by religious organizations are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” A majority of private schools in the U.S. are religious, which means that most private schools are free to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

In Indiana, Chalkbeat found that at least 27 schools that accept vouchers have policies that suggest or declare that LGBT students are unwelcome.

What about private schools that aren’t religious?

At non-religious private schools, Title IX’s nondiscrimination rules do apply. But a change in interpretation means the law offers fewer protections to transgender students than it has in the past.

Under the Obama administration, the ban on discriminating on the basis of sex was interpreted as related either to biological sex or to gender identity. However, the Trump administration rescinded guidance on that front — meaning the federal government considers Title IX to only bar discrimination based on a student’s biological sex.

Do any states have laws that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

Many states have implemented their own nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — in the world of public education. But no voucher programs have such policies in place, research shows.

As a result, private schools are free to turn away LGBT students while still receiving public funding for accepting vouchers.

What about other forms of discrimination?

Private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race if they want tax-exempt status. The executive director of the Council for American Private Education, Joe McTighe, said he wasn’t “familiar with any nonprofit private schools that elect against tax-exempt status.”

If private schools accept federal funds, they are also bound to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

When it comes to students with disabilities, private schools have more leeway to turn students away.

This is partly because students who choose to attend a private school — including through a voucher program — forfeit their right to a “free appropriate public education” that they are otherwise guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires private schools to accept students so long as only “minor adjustments” are needed to accommodate them. But it exempts religiously run private schools.

Under a third law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, those protections apply to religious schools, too — if the school receives federal funds.

choice for most

Choice for most: In nation’s largest voucher program, $16 million went to schools with anti-LGBT policies

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

The school’s admissions policy has made Lighthouse the focus of an intensifying national debate: whether private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to receive taxpayer dollars.

But as that debate heats up, it’s been unclear how many schools have policies like Lighthouse’s.

Chalkbeat tried to find out. In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

“These findings are likely an understatement,” said Steve Suitts, a professor who has researched discrimination against LGBT students in Georgia’s voucher program.

However, Chalkbeat did not find public, discriminatory policies at the vast majority of schools. In fact, many had rules in place to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Legally speaking, private schools are allowed to turn away LGBT students — and many voucher proponents say it’s important to provide families with the option to attend schools that can instill students with their religious values.

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools, and no statewide voucher programs offer their own protections based on sexual orientation. (Students are typically protected from discrimination based on race and national origin.)

But as DeVos pushes for a national expansion of voucher programs, she’s sent mixed messages about discrimination. It’s wrong “in any form,” she’s said. But when grilled by senators on the issue in June, she used the same response 14 times: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

By the numbers

As of May, 302 schools are eligible to accept vouchers in Indiana. Of the 27 schools that have anti-LGBT policies, 19 state that they can either refuse to admit or expel students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.

Six schools require parents to affirm that “homosexual behavior,” among other items, “is sinful and offensive to God,” and two schools limited students’ bathroom use to their biological sex.

The vast majority of Indiana’s private schools accepting vouchers do not mention gender or sexuality in their school policies or handbooks. For over 60 schools that don’t share either of those documents online, Chalkbeat reached out to discuss their policies.

Another 27 schools offer specific protections for LGBT students. (Explore policies by school, county and city here.)

Policies in practice

Victory Christian Academy in Northwest Indiana is among the schools that publicly shares an explicitly discriminatory admissions policy. It received $630,000 for enrolling 160 students using vouchers last school year.

The school’s handbook states that it reserves the right to refuse admission to or remove a student “if the atmosphere or the conduct within a particular home or the activities of the student” crosses certain lines, including LGBT activity.

However, a former administrator at Victory said that no students had ever been turned away because of their sexuality. He described the policy as a warning meant to reduce conflict.

“We’re not trying to block anyone from our school,” said Tony Clymer. “We’re just trying to stay in the affirmative what kind of school we are, what we hold to be near and dear.”

“If that doesn’t match with your family,” he added, “we’d rather know up front rather than for your student to be here or you to be here and find out later.”

Administrators at Lakeland Christian Academy, which has a policy similar to Victory’s, told Chalkbeat — and Lighthouse previously told the Indianapolis Star — that their school had never refused admission to a student because they identified as LGBT.

Enrollment at these institutions is often framed as entering into a mutual agreement, such that the students attending them are on board with every aspect of the school’s mission.

“It’s our role to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christ-like. If your goal is not to become more Christ-like, this school doesn’t make sense,” Clymer said. “It would be like sending your child to a magnet school for the arts when your child has no desire to be in the arts.”

What happens if a student who is already enrolled begins to question their sexuality or gender?

Joy Lavender, an administrator at Lakeland last year, said a guidance counselor would talk with the student and that the school would contact their parents to determine a course of action.

“Our goal here at Lakeland is not necessarily, ‘You do something wrong, you’re kicked out,’” Lavender said. “Our reason for expulsion for any kind of infraction is because we feel like that student is not able to be restored or that they’re not salvageable or they’re very negative about the things we believe in.”

Lavender noted that students at Lakeland have questioned their sexuality, but “it never became an issue, so they graduated from here.”

The mentality is the same at Victory, where Clymer said students question their sexuality “every year, all the time.” The school’s response is to encourage students to take on their role found in the Bible, which is defined as as entering into a marriage between a man and a woman.

Guiding principles

Lakeland, Lighthouse and Victory Christian Academies have something else in common: their accreditation.

More than half of schools — 14 out of 27 — with anti-LGBT policies were accredited by Association of Christian Schools International, which has more than 3,000 member schools in the U.S. The pro school-choice group provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

See for yourself: A side-by-side comparison of ACSI’s suggested policy and one of its member schools’ policy on LGBT students.

The book suggests that schools say they may refuse admissions to or expel a student for “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity.” In most cases, ACSI member schools used the same wording.

The handbook also recommends that schools ask for a reference from a pastor. If “a parent of a young child indicates that he or she is in a homosexual lifestyle,” it advises school officials to tell the parent that their child will be denied admission.

If a school and a student reach an “impasse” regarding sexual orientation or gender identity issues, the handbook recommends the school “disenroll,” rather than expel, the student to avoid legal problems.

Despite the book’s advice, ACSI’s director of legal and legislative issues said he hoped schools are a safe place for kids questioning their sexuality.

“We’d want them to know that they could talk to their teachers or their school leaders about these things and they would be able to help them,” said Tom Cathey.

Thirty-three of ACSI’s member schools are eligible to receive vouchers next fall, making it the second-largest religious accrediting group among schools in Indiana’s voucher program. The largest religious accreditor in Indiana is the National Catholic Education Association, with 110 schools — and the group takes a different approach when it comes to LGBT students.

None of NCEA’s member schools shared anti-LGBT policies on their websites, and 12 of its schools offered protections for LGBT students in the form of anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies. (The group’s director of public relations, Margaret Kaplow, said the NCEA “does not lobby for or against policy of any kind.”)

Roncalli High School is one of NCEA’s schools to offer its LGBT students protections. The Indianapolis Catholic school’s anti-harassment policy states, “No racist, sexist or homophobic expression, language or behavior will be tolerated.”

Its co-director of guidance, Shelly Fitzgerald, said Roncalli aims to provide a positive environment for all students, including those who identify as LGBT.

“We counsel all kids the same, in terms of relationships, things that they go through — heterosexual or bisexual or questioning,” Fitzgerald said. If students aren’t comfortable talking with guidance counselors, she said, they can be referred to the school’s social worker or outside support groups, such as Indiana Youth Group.

Still, there are restrictions at some of NCEA’s member schools on how open students can be about their sexual orientation. Three define students’ dates as members of the opposite sex when they discuss school dances or prom in their handbooks.

Ambiguity and politics

The vast majority of schools in Indiana don’t mention LGBT students in their policies.

Suitts said he thinks recent media focus has pushed headmasters and school boards to be less clear on this front.

“Before, there was a greater tendency of headmasters to be verbal or forthcoming even if they didn’t have an explicit policy about whether they would accept gay students,” Suitts said. “But the Supreme Court decision and litigation, the whole discussion that’s going on, has made them much more obtuse on this issue publicly.”

However, supporters of school choice say that different belief systems are what make school choice important — even if some students are left out.

“I find it abhorrent that there are schools that say that children who themselves are gay are not welcome there,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “But if we believe in a pluralist system, then there’s got to be room — again, for what I may find abhorrent — to be a part of that, if we believe it’s important for parents, especially low-income and working class parents, to get to have a choice.”

Suzanne Eckes, a professor who has researched discrimination in private school voucher programs, said that allowing some schools to discriminate against LGBT students on the basis of religion is no different than racial discrimination.

“People say just don’t apply to one of those schools,” Eckes said. “And that doesn’t sit well with me, because we made the same argument in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s about black kids.”

Although DeVos has promised to unveil a national school choice initiative, it falls on states to decide whether private schools receiving public funds can discriminate based on sexual orientation — a decision, the education secretary has argued, that should continue to be made at the local level.