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.

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.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.