hard choices

New York City’s charter school leaders are not rallying behind school choice advocate Betsy DeVos. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Angel Martinez, a member of the Parent Action Committee, protests in front of Eva Moskowitz's home in November.

When news broke that President-elect Trump tapped school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary, New York City’s charter school sector was relatively quiet. With the exception of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who tweeted she was “thrilled,” local charter school leaders and advocates have mostly kept to themselves.

That might seem surprising in a city where more than 100,000 students are educated in charter schools. But DeVos’ brand of school choice, which has so far has focused on fighting for private school vouchers and less charter oversight, is very different from the type than exists in New York City — and some local charter leaders appear wary of it.

“I think a great many charter supporters, and indeed charter founders, are deeply troubled by the idea of vouchers,” said Steve Wilson, CEO of the New York-based Ascend charter school network. “I would venture most charter school founders are liberal Democrats who are committed to social justice and would be very troubled by free market mechanisms.”

The distinction between charter schools and vouchers is key for Wilson. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run institutions. Vouchers, which can fund private schools, are much more radical, Wilson said, and lumping the two together does a disservice to charter schools.

“I would say that education choice is a double-edged sword,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link, a charter elementary school. “We as the charter school sector and the education community need to understand the damage that choice can cause.”

Evangelista and others in the sector also disagree with DeVos’ apparent stance on charter school regulation, which she fought in her home state of Michigan.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, did not comment publicly on DeVos, but he wrote an op-ed after Trump’s election on the importance of maintaining strong charter school oversight, instead of “simply growing the sector for growth’s sake.”

“A high-quality charter school sector is only possible when sound policy takes precedence over ideology,” Merriman wrote. “The bedrock of chartering isn’t that the marketplace or even choice will make good schools, as some Republicans, perhaps Trump included, seem to think.”

The DeVos family poured over a million dollars into legislative races when lawmakers were considering more charter school oversight in Detroit. Her work drew criticism for creating a “Wild West” policy environment and allowing failing charters to survive.

The charter sector in Michigan, which has an unprecedented number of for-profit charter schools, looks nothing like the sector in New York. In Michigan, there are many charter-school authorizers, some of which are strict while others are more lax, said Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative-learning Thomas Fordham Institute.

“There is a sense that in Detroit, nobody is in charge,” Petrilli said. That contrasts with New York, which has a small number of authorizers focused on school quality, he said.

Having a school-choice advocate associated with Trump also puts New York City’s sector in a bind. Particularly in the wake of the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, some in the sector are trying to win progressive support, rather than squander it.

New York City’s charter schools serve many low-income students of color, some of whom feel anxious and angry about the rhetoric Trump used during his campaign. Eva Moskowitz’s pledge to support Trump’s education efforts drew protesters outside her Harlem home.

“Some of it is probably guilt by association,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “You still have a president-elect who is viewed by many as having egged on and promoted racist and otherwise offensive points of view among his supporters.”

Still, some national and regional charter school groups have expressed support for DeVos. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sent a congratulatory release, and Andrea Rogers, New York state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, sent a statement saying she is “glad to see another charter supporter take the reins.”

But for most local organizations and schools, there seems to be little upside in embracing her. While the federal government can incentivize policy decisions, as it did with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, most important charter school decisions are decided at the state level. And since some charter schools receive grant money from the federal government, they may have an added incentive to steer clear of messy political arguments. If charter schools stay quiet now, they may benefit later, said Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation.

“There might be some political savviness right now to just holding back and preserving a place as a potential third way when big battles arise over school choice and privatization,” Potter said. “It could turn out that the big third way could be charter schools as way of expanding school choice.”

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.