On the Agenda

Four things to watch for at New Schools Venture Fund Summit, this week’s big education reform confab

PHOTO: Katherine Taylor

Education conferences are often carefully orchestrated affairs involving panel discussions in which the participants more or less agree. Rarely do they make headlines.

But last year’s summit put on by the New Schools Venture Fund — a “venture philanthropy” that supports education reform causes, including charter schools — was an exception.

Its emphasis on social justice, with one attendee describing the event as reminiscent of a Black Lives Matter rally, sparked a heated debate about the role of race and politics in education, as below-the-surface tensions within that movement went public. The election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary have only served to exacerbate the strains.

This year’s conference, which includes a few big names, including former Secretary of Education John King, will feature some discussion of these debates, as well as a heavy focus on education technology.

Chalkbeat will be attending this year, and here’s what we’ll be looking for:

Can right and left get along?

The debate about last year’s summit was sparked by a blog post from the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio. He described a “leftward lurch” that was going to “push conservatives out of education reform,” as epitomized by the conference’s focus on social-justice issues. This led to a flurry of blog posts, internal debates, and open letters about political divides and racial diversity within the ed reform movement.

Some on both sides of the debate worried that long-running bipartisan support for charter schools and teacher accountability initiatives — recall Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney both praising President Obama’s education agenda — would be weakened.

In a nod to this issue, this year’s summit’s closing session is titled “Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Disagreements, Tradeoffs and Common Ground,” and features panelists with diverse ideological perspectives, including Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform and Matt Ladner of the Charles Koch Institute.

How do people talk about DeVos and Trump?

Since the last summit, U.S. politics has been turned upside down — a new president and secretary of education are promoting school choice, but not the brand that’s generally popular at New Schools.

Some charter supporters worry that DeVos and Trump will make the topic politically toxic and are much more skeptical of private school vouchers, DeVos’s signature issue. Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools initially praised Trump’s proposed budget — which directs more money to charter schools, but cuts from the education budget — a number of charter leaders criticized it in an op-ed in USA Today, as did DFER.

“We want to join with all those who are fighting to defend public education as an essential pillar of our democracy,” the charter leaders wrote.

Notably, there’s not much about Trump, DeVos, or private school vouchers on the NSVF agenda, suggesting that the conference may steer clear of the topic — at least officially. We’re sure it will be a frequent topic of conversation at receptions and hotel bars after the official programming.

A “big bet” on ed tech — but where’s the evidence?

The agenda does include a heavy focus on education technology and “personalized learning,” or the idea that technology can be used to tailor teaching to specific students’ needs. Sessions include “How to Personalize Learning with Rigor and High Expectations,” and “Is Ed Tech the Great Equalizer? Designing Products for Equity,” among several others.

Even the description of the one panel on the new federal education law starts by saying, “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) brings tremendous opportunities for innovation and personalized learning.”

This emphasis dovetails with a recent report from NSVF calling on philanthropists to make a “big bet” on technology-based innovation in schools. Indeed, two of the biggest sponsors of the event — The Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — are key supporters of edtech. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat’s.)

That attention raises an obvious question: What’s the evidence that such an approach is likely to pay off for students? The research base on personalized learning is fairly thin, particularly when looking beyond standardized test scores. Supporters can point to some evidence of success, but critics can also point to a lack of impact in other instances, and an overall lack of studies on the topic.

We’ll be watching to see what studies are cited at panels promoting personalized learning. If they aren’t, we’ll be asking where the optimism about a generally unproven strategy stems from.

How is the charter school movement evolving?

One session, “Charters: Bigger, Better or Different?” points to three separate visions for the charter school movement: a focus on growth (expand quickly) vs. quality (be really good) vs. variety (offer families a number of different options). This panel features the heads of three charter networks, including KIPP.

In fact, the conference will be attended by many of the leaders of the highest-profile charter school networks. And the charter world is as big, numbers-wise, as it’s ever been. That means new pressures and lots of ideas about how the sector should evolve.

Should charters grow more, or less, quickly? Should the sector focus on creating different educational options for families to choose from? Should no-excuses charter schools change their approach to discipline? Will anyone discuss much-maligned virtual charters, which have posted abysmal test scores, leading even many charter advocates to call for them to be more tightly regulated?

There may well be tension between the different goals, so we’ll be paying attention to what different panelists have to say on the topic — and what approach charter leaders believe should be emphasized.

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.