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.

color blind

The feds are discouraging districts from using race to integrate schools. A new study points to a potential downside

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
(Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Trump administration recently made waves by removing Obama-era guidance that offered ways for school districts to consider students’ race in order to diversify and integrate schools. The rollback could have harmful consequences for students, according to a new study.

The paper offers a test case of the rule, and it suggests that move — at least if it affects any districts’ policies — could hurt academic outcomes, including college enrollment, by making racial segregation worse, although the study only focuses on a single district.

“There’s a general sense that student outcomes are going down in these schools that are more racially segregated from these race-neutral admissions,” said Jason Cook, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study.

The paper, which has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on an anonymous urban school district that, after a federal investigation in the early 2000s, was forced to end race-conscious admissions to its coveted magnet middle schools. To maintain some diversity in its student body, the district ran separate lotteries for black and non-black (largely white) students. After the federal mandate, though, the district put all students in one lottery, and in turn the schools became notably more segregated — rising from about 77 percent to 85 percent black.

After the policy from 2003 to 2007, the research finds that the spike in segregation corresponded to a decrease in college enrollment for black students by a couple percentage points. There was also an indication of modest declines in test scores in sixth grade and in high school graduation rates, though these results weren’t statistically significant for black students. There was no clear impact on 10th-grade test scores.

These effects aren’t huge, but neither was the increase in segregation, and the results generally point in a negative direction.

Separately, the paper shows that in general magnet schools in that district were less effective when they were made up of predominantly black students, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of struggling students and recruit lower-quality teachers.

The paper also shows that as schools became more predominantly black, more of their white students left, creating a vicious cycle that intensified segregation. “Racial segregation is self-perpetuating,” concludes Cook.

The district in question did not attempt to use race-neutral measures, like poverty status, to promote integration. Research, though, has shown that such approaches are less effective for achieving racial integration than considering race directly.

There is one particularly important caveat to the results, though: The policy change meant that more black students had access to in-demand, high-performing magnet schools. That is, in changing the lottery to stop what amounted to preferences for non-black students, the shift increased segregation but it also meant that a small number of black students had access to top schools they otherwise might not have.

That remains a key point of contention in other cities debating integration. In Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, a longstanding court decision has prioritized the creation of integrated magnets — done in part by giving white students from the suburbs preference in admissions to magnet schools in the city. After a local newspaper series looked into this practice, critics said the system was effectively shutting out local students from the best schools; supporters contended that the rules are necessary to prevent resegregation of those schools.

The latest study can’t answer knotty philosophical questions about how to divvy up seats in coveted schools, but it does suggest each side has a point — admissions rules do, by definition, keep some kids out, but removing those rules can lead to unintended consequences, including making those schools less effective.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who has studied school segregation and is writing a book on the topic, pointed out that the latest study has limits. “That particular paper is focused on one specific district, so even if it’s done really well, you still would want to consider whether [it applies in] other districts,” he said.

But Johnson said the findings are largely consistent with past research including his own, which focused on school desegregation efforts in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. “For African-Americans we saw significant impacts,” he said. “High school graduation rates increased, college attendance and college completion rates increased, the type of colleges they attended were more selective, …[there were] increases in earnings, reductions in annual incidence of poverty.”

More recent research has shown that the resegregation of districts led to dips in high school graduation rates among black and Hispanic students. A school integration program on the San Francisco Peninsula caused jumps in test scores and college enrollment (though also arrest rates for non-violent crimes).

In recent decades, as court-mandated integration orders have ended, race-based segregation has gotten worse or held steady, depending on how it’s measured; income-based stratification has consistently worsened. The recent move by the Trump administration is not legally binding, and only a small number of districts have voluntary race-conscious integration policies in place.

Johnson, for his part, fears that defeatism has overtaken the urgency to integrate schools. Some people, Johnson said, have the mindset that “we can’t socially engineer integration.”

“The reality is we did socially engineer segregation,” he said. “It would be natural to understand that we might have to re-engineer that through some intentional policy.”

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.