what betsy's reading

Has the charter school movement gone awry? A new book says yes, and it’s causing a stir

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

What’s the point of a charter school? Is acting as another option for families enough, or should it have to post higher test scores than other schools, too?

Those questions are at the heart of a growing rift in the education reform world — and the focus of a new book making waves among some of its most prominent conservative figures.

The book, a collection of essays edited by the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen and Cara Candal and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, makes the case that the charter school movement has gone awry: it’s over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.

They appear to have an ally in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In a recent speech to charter school leaders, DeVos criticized lengthy charter applications, warning that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats.”

What’s needed now, the book’s authors say, is more innovation and less of a focus on test results. That argument prompted Checker Finn, the former president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, to call the book “idiocy.” In an email exchange among a number of well-known education reformers, Allen shot back, saying Finn was “catching the same disease that befell Diane Ravitch,” the school choice advocate-turned-reform-critic.

The book’s arguments mark a break from longtime tenets of conservative education reform, particularly the test-based accountability promoted by two powerful brothers, George W. and Jeb Bush, over the last 20 years. And with DeVos at the helm of the federal education department and Republicans in control of most state legislatures and governorships, the manifesto may serve as a blueprint for conservative policymakers across the country.

“I do think the free-market crowd has emerged a bit from the shadows and is sensing in the current administration and political climate an opportunity to muscle into a stronger role in defining the future of school choice,” said Jeff Henig, a professor at Columbia.

Calls for a broader vision for the charter movement

Allen and Eden say charter school advocates can be divided into two camps.

In one corner are “system-centered reformers,” who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.

In the other are “parent-centered reformers.” They want to see a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” DeVos — who appeared at a private reception held by Allen’s Center for Education Reform in June — has described her vision in similar terms.

The rest of the book, “Charting a New Course,” expands on the idea that charter schools need fewer restrictions. An opening piece by Allen argues that the charter school sector has become too risk-averse and uniform, while Eden says that advocates have been too focused on increasing test scores through no-excuses charter schools in urban areas.

In separate essays, Derrell Bradford of the advocacy group 50CAN writes that charters should expand to the suburbs to broaden their political coalition. Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute says that test-based accountability has led to the narrowing of the school curriculum, and University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene argues that test scores are poor proxies for students’ life outcomes and thus are of limited use for regulating charter schools.

Eden and Allen close the book with recommendations that include expanding the number and type of charter authorizers, ensuring charters are not bound by teacher certification rules, and reducing charter school regulations.

They suggest that charter schools should expand not only because of their measurable outcomes but because parents subscribe to their values.

“Fundamentally, chartering is about creating the space for this freedom,” Eden and Allen write. “Some charter advocates view charter schooling as simply a means to an end, as a more efficient way to drive higher test scores. But freedom is a good in and of itself.”

Are authorizers already doing this?

A centerpiece of the divide between the two charter camps, Eden and Allen write, is how the decision is made to close a charter school.

“In a parent-centered ecosystem, authorizers should retain the ability to close a school – but that decision should always be a human one,” they write. “Rather than simply close a school based on a formula for standardized test score performance, test scores should open a serious conversation rather than close one.”

One target of their ire: the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which they see as epitomizing the “system-centered” worldview.

So it’s surprising that Greg Richmond, president of NACSA, says he agrees that schools shouldn’t be closed based on test scores alone — which he says is already the case in most instances.

“It’s not only already happening, it’s something we have been recommending forever,” he told Chalkbeat.

Richmond supports closure laws that create a presumption that charters with poor academic results — usually measured largely through test scores — will close. But he says that authorizers and state accountability systems should look at other metrics like attendance, too.

Eden said he hopes that is what is actually going on, but he fears it’s not, since some states have laws outlining how test scores should prompt school closures.

At the heart of the disagreement is how heavily to weigh parental demand for a school. Richmond says that demand is relevant, though a NACSA guide exhorts authorizers not to “make renewal decisions … on the basis of political or community pressure.”

But political pressure to one person is democracy in action to the other.

“Political backlash is an attempt of constituents — parents, students, teachers — to communicate a strongly felt opinion towards a political actor that has authority over them,” Eden said. “That’s not something that should be short-circuited by policymakers; that’s something that that actor should have to reckon with directly.”

On one particularly pressing question about how to balance family demand and academic performance, the book is oddly silent: The topic of virtual charter schools.

Are these rapidly growing online schools, backed by DeVos and many choice advocates, an example of the innovation the authors seek? What to make of the apparently dismal academic performance — noted in multiple studies — of these schools? By what measures should they be judged?

Eden said he is open to additional regulation, but said he didn’t have a firm opinion on the topic, and not one of the book’s essays mentions virtual charter schools.

tribute

Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.