‘I think that’s blood money’: Arne Duncan pushed charters to reject funds from Trump admin if budget cuts approved

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner

For left-of-center education reformers, the proposed Trump budget amounted to a devil’s bargain.

They could support the budget plan, which would give hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools. But they would have to do so knowing it slashed education spending across the board, including money meant for poor students.

Around 25 leaders talked over the dilemma at a previously unreported meeting on March 16 — coincidentally, the same day the initial budget plan was released. There, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a provocative suggestion: charter leaders should refuse to accept federal money designated for charter schools if Trump’s cuts to education went through.

Duncan called those funds “blood money,” according to two attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was intended to be private.

The meeting, originally called to discuss the broader question of how progressive education reform should survive in the age of Trump and the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, points to the widening fault lines within that movement.

The gathering included another former education secretary, John King, as well as leaders of groups such as Teach for America and Democrats for Education Reform and from the Achievement First and Uncommon charter networks.

Duncan declined to speak about the meeting, but he reiterated his view to Chalkbeat in an interview.

“If [DeVos] is cutting money for traditional public schools and putting money into charters … I’ve told them not to take the money,” said Duncan. “I think that’s blood money.”

“We all [have] got to be thinking about not just the kids we serve directly, but all kids,” he said.

The deep cuts proposed by the administration are not seen as likely to make it through Congress; a House budget bill released last month would reduce education spending by $2.4 billion, not by the Trump plan’s $9.2 billion. Duncan emphasized that the cuts — and thus a potential response from charter leaders — are still hypothetical.

Liz Hill, the Department of Education press secretary, sharply criticized Duncan’s suggestion to charter leaders.

“Make no mistake: following this approach would hurt students. It’s an insult to the millions of students and parents benefiting from charter schools, and the millions more on waiting lists trying to get into a school that better meets their needs,” she said in a statement. “It’s especially sad to see such a misguided effort advanced by a former Secretary of Education.”

‘It’s not just about accountability or school choice’

The left-of-center charter school advocates who held sway in the Obama administration have a complicated relationship with DeVos, who backs charter schools but also private-school vouchers and, as a member of the Trump administration, is viewed skeptically by many.

Some, including Success Academy Eva Moskowitz, a former Democratic New York City council member who was briefly considered for education secretary, have praised DeVos. (Moskowitz was not at the March meeting.) Other Democrats, such as Duncan, King and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats For Education Reform, have been far more critical.

The overarching question at the March discussion, organized in part by Jeffries, was how education reformers should respond to the Trump and DeVos administration, including on issues beyond education. (Jeffries declined to comment, saying the meeting was private.)

“There was a broad consensus that we need to expand our view of what it is to be about kids,” said one person present. “It’s not just about accountability or school choice or things like that — it’s also about protecting the civil rights of our children and protecting our immigrant kids.”

This perspective was strongly articulated by John King. (A spokesperson for the Education Trust, where King is now president, declined to comment.)

“There was a sincere tension between people feeling like they’d be abandoning kids if they just joined the general political fight … and a sincere belief that this Trump administration is going to destroy the country and part of that, destroy the lives of many kids,” said the attendee.

There was some disagreement on the issue of school vouchers — DeVos’s signature idea — though few participants were strongly in favor of the policy.

Jonah Edelman, who runs the advocacy group Stand for Children and attended the meeting, would later pen an essay with American Federation for Teachers president Randi Weingarten calling vouchers “bad for kids, public education and our democracy.” (Edelman did not respond to a request for comment.)

‘This funding is vital’

Two attendees said Duncan’s idea of declining federal charter funds received mixed reactions, though most in the room were not charter leaders — that is, those who would have to make the difficult decision not to accept federal money.

“There are some people who wanted to take this more punchy, assertive approach and there were some people … who were less inclined to do that,” one said.

Duncan, for his part, said he had “had that conversation with some charter network leaders” — though he declined to get into specifics — and said the idea was not dismissed out of hand.

“Some people it really made them stop and think, and others I could tell were already thinking along those lines,” he said. “This is my best thinking; they are ultimately going to make their own decisions.”

None of the three high-profile charter networks contacted by Chalkbeat endorsed Duncan’s suggestion. Achievement First, KIPP, and Uncommon have all have previously received millions of dollars from the federal Charter School Program, which supports the expansion of existing charter operators.

Steve Mancini, a spokesperson for KIPP, said CEO Richard Barth was present for part of the March meeting but left before Duncan arrived.

Both Mancini and Barbara Martinez, the chief external officer of Uncommon Schools, emphasized their organizations’ strong opposition to the Trump budget, but declined to take a position on potentially refusing charter school funds.

In a statement, Dacia Toll, who is the president of Achievement First and was at the March meeting, sounded a skeptical note on declining federal dollars, while reiterating her “firm opposition to a federal budget that hurts our students, families, and communities.”

“We, like virtually every school district in this country, will accept federal funding because we depend on this money to provide our students, especially our highest-need students, with the services they need,” Toll said, noting that Achievement First won a multi-year federal grant in 2015. “This funding is vital.”

National charter school groups have tried to walk a careful line with the new administration. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools praised the additional money for charter schools requested by the Trump administration, though criticized other aspects of the budget.

Meanwhile, at the meeting, frustration with the Trump budget was palpable. Many present believed that there needed to be a firm and public denunciation of the proposal.

Two weeks after the meeting, on March 29, USA Today published an op-ed by the heads of Achievement First, KIPP and Uncommon Schools and endorsed by a number of other charter school leaders.

“We cannot support the president’s budget as proposed,” the op-ed read, “and we are determined to do everything in our power to work with Congress and the administration to protect the programs that are essential to the broader needs of our students, families and communities.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”