charter politics

Betsy DeVos to charter school leaders: Your schools ‘are not the one cure-all’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

In an address to charter school advocates, leaders, and teachers in Washington D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared to chide charter supporters who oppose her push to expand private school choice.

She also criticized rules designed to ensure charter quality, but that — in her telling — had turned into red tape, stifling innovation.

“Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education,” she said at the conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a cure-all in education.”

Her remarks hinted at growing divides within the school choice movement. Charter school advocates in New York, California, and Denver have been cool to the idea of expanding vouchers. The broader group has splintered on other issues, too: accountability for charter schools, for-profit charters, President Trump’s budget, and issues beyond education.

On the question of how to measure school quality, DeVos continued to send mixed messages. On the one hand, she praised the National Alliance for having “proven that quality and choice can coexist.” On the other hand, she criticized efforts to ensure that schools are high-quality through “500-page charter school applications.”

This touches on a longstanding debate about how much regulation charter schools need — and who should provide it.

Research released earlier this week showed that there is significant variation in test score performance among different charter school networks, and that for-profit and virtual schools lag behind. DeVos has supported both types of schools.

“A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right,” said DeVos. “It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”

Other research has found that when charter schools are closed because of poor performance, student achievement increases. Yet market-oriented choice advocates often suggest that parents are in the best position to decide which school is a good fit for their child, and test scores shouldn’t be the sole basis for those decisions.

When asked during a brief question and answer session with Derrell Bradford — a supporter of school choice from the group 50CAN — where she stood, DeVos did not offer a specific answer.

“Our focus should be on not choice for choice’s sake, but choice because parents are demanding something different for their children,” she said. “For every year that they don’t have that opportunity, their child is missing out.”

Amy Wilkins, a vice president for the National Alliance, said that if a charter school is not meeting academic performance goals, “it should absolutely close,” though emphasized that the process should be done carefully with the needs of parents in mind.

She sees DeVos’s position as slightly different than her group’s.

“My sense is she’s probably a little more on the ‘choice for choice’ [side] than the Alliance is,” Wilkins told Chalkbeat.

Greg Richmond, the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a prominent advocate for holding charter schools accountable for their academic results, said in an interview that he wasn’t sure of DeVos’s position on the topic.

“Clearly we’re in the robust accountability camp,” he said in an interview. But of DeVos, “I haven’t figured [DeVos] out yet.”

In her speech, DeVos also referenced a recent blog post by Rick Hess, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, whom she called a friend. “Many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats – a new education establishment,” she said.

Although she spoke passionately about helping low-income students escape struggling schools, DeVos only briefly mentioned President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, the brunt of which critics say would fall on poor students and their families.

“While some of you have criticized the President’s budget – which you have every right to do – it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States,” DeVos said. “It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.”

Some charter school teachers say the budget would hurt their students.

“It’s really disturbing that the same people she’s claiming she wants to help and be an advocate for are the one’s that she’s hurting,” said Carlene Carpenter, a charter school teacher in Chicago and a member of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re hearing one thing, but in actuality what’s really happening with these budget cuts is the after-school programs are being eliminated.”

The cuts are still a proposal, and conventional wisdom in D.C. is that the plan has no shot at getting through Congress.

DeVos reiterated her view that money is not the key to improving schools, though recent research suggests more resources do in fact help schools get better. She also agreed with the idea that charter schools are not equitably funded.

DeVos’s remarks come as the National Alliance toes a careful line. The group’s president, Nina Rees, addressed that head-on in remarks on Monday.

“Let me tackle the big elephant in the room,” she said. “Donald Trump.”

“We can disagree with President Trump and disagree loudly when we believe it’s the right thing to do, but to ignore the impact of a big increase in funding at the federal level would be irresponsible,” Rees said. “It would put the interest of adults and political activists ahead of the needs of our schools.”

Rees has faced pressure from some charter school leaders after a number of them wrote an op-ed in USA Today criticizing the Trump budget. The National Alliance initially offered unmitigated praise for the proposal, though has since criticized aspects of it.

“Accepting the president’s agenda on charter schools doesn’t connect us to his full agenda,” Rees said.

choice challenge

A Betsy DeVos-approved tax change is meant to make private school more affordable. Here’s why it might not work

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The just-passed tax law includes a big perk for families who send their children to private school: the ability to use certain tax-advantaged savings accounts, which until now could only be used to save for higher education, to pay for K-12 school, too.

That’s led to criticism from those who note that the wealthy stand to benefit the most and that local public school budgets could take a hit, and support from school choice advocates like Betsy DeVos, who argue it will expand access to private schools.

But there’s reason to believe that the move won’t make private school feasible for any more families — and that private schools are likely to raise tuition in response.

Here’s why: All families are eligible to use the saving accounts, known as 529s. That means unlike a lot of state programs that offer private school vouchers or tax credits, the 529s aren’t targeted at poor students, those with a disability, or other specific groups.

In a peer-reviewed 2016 study, researchers compared the effects of these two types of choice programs: those that are restricted to certain populations and those available to all. The latter group — that is, programs like 529s — didn’t lead to any increase in students attending private school, but did cause a sharp hike in school tuition.

This suggests these programs don’t function the way some advocates want them to. Instead of adding choices for families, they offer a windfall to schools. (Keep in mind that students could still benefit if private schools use that extra money to improve the quality of education they offer.)

There is one important reason why private schools may not react to this change in the same way. Although all families will technically be able to use the new 529 rules to save for private school, in practice, only families with enough money to put extra into one of the accounts will be able to participate. In that sense, it could function more like a targeted program, and those have been found to boost private school attendance.

In praising the initiative on Tuesday, DeVos acknowledged the fact that the program is unlikely to benefit poor families.

“Anything that empowers parents and gives them more opportunities for their students is a good thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t address the needs of parents who are from lower incomes and doesn’t empower them in significant ways.”

devos watch

Four takeaways from Betsy DeVos’s summit on innovation in K-12 education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this month. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos used her bully pulpit on Tuesday to again call for more school innovation, especially technology-infused “personalized learning.”

“Washington, D.C. does not have all the answers,” DeVos said at the Department of Education’s K-12 focused “Rethink Schools Summit.” “But government can be good at bringing people together to highlight their creative thinking and new approaches.”

It’s a familiar tactic for DeVos, who has been largely stymied in pushing school choice policies but has repeatedly put the spotlight on specific schools she finds innovative. Charter and private schools were well represented at the Tuesday meeting, which also included a number of district leaders and an array of others, including arts-education, homeschooling, and community-schools advocates.

Here are a few takeaways from the event:

Generalities outnumbered policy specifics.

There appeared to be broad agreement in the room on several general notions: Teachers are important, technology needs to be used, but used wisely, and schools must change to prepare students for a changing world.

“Technology is the not the answer,” said Tom Rooney, the superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District in California that has embraced a tech-infused approach that he calls customized learning. It’s “about using technology in transformational way to accelerate the learning.”

Rooney pointed to an effort to expand wireless Internet throughout the community, and to schools that group students by performance levels, rather than age or grade.

But DeVos’s request for participants describe “where impediments at any level of government are preventing you from achieving your mission” went largely unheeded. Two exceptions were concerns raised about state testing requirements and teacher certification rules.

Personalized learning was front and center, dovetailing with the goals of some big philanthropists.

The theme of the day was the notion of tailoring teaching to individual students — alternatively called personalized, customized, or student-centered learning.

This approach aligns with the agendas of several influential education foundations, namely the Emerson Collective, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. (Emerson and Gates are both funders of Chalkbeat.)

Among the speakers was Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit, a charter school network that also provides software to district schools to support tech-based personalized learning. Summit has been supported by the Gates Foundation, won an XQ prize from the Emerson Collective, and is backed by Chan-Zuckerberg.

Mark Zuckerberg specifically mentioned the group in a recent post describing his approach to charitable giving. “Our partnership with Summit Public Schools has helped encode their teaching philosophy in tools that will be used in more than 300 district, charter, and private schools this fall,” he wrote.

The leader of the Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, which also won a $10 million XQ prize, was present, as was a representative of Leap Innovations, a nonprofit group that consults on personalized learning and has been praised by Bill Gates and Jim Shelton of Chan-Zuckerberg.

Some notable players weren’t present: prominent charters and virtual schools.

Those not at the summit included fully virtual charter school operators — like K12 or Connections Academy — who DeVos and some other school choice advocates have praised as innovative, but that research has found lead to large drops in student achievement.

Also missing: high-profile “no-excuses” charter networks, such as Achievement First, KIPP, or Success Academy, which have posted consistently high test scores.

There were bold claims of success, but little new evidence.

DeVos and other participants appeared confident that their focus on personalized learning will succeed, despite the limited evidence to date. Participants made big assertions, including district leaders saying that test scores and graduation rates had improved after moving to a different approach. But it’s difficult to say whether a more personalized approach deserves credit for these gains, and there was little reference to research evidence throughout the conference.

Summit, for instance, has not been the subject of much rigorous external study. The closest may be a recent report by Stanford’s CREDO, which only examined about 400 students in the Summit network. It found the schools had no statistically significant effect on reading test scores and small negative impacts in math. Summit has produced an internal analysis showing that students using its software made faster than average growth on a national test.

In general, personalized learning advocates highlight older research on the benefits of one-on-one tutoring, studies finding that specific math-focused computer programs can lead to gains, and a RAND report pointing to gains in schools that have adopted personalized learning. The RAND researchers, though, have urged caution.

“I worry that the positive results that have come out of our studies are generating a bit too much enthusiasm,” RAND researcher John Pane told Education Week in November. “I think people see the headlines, but they don’t see the limitations of the research that’s happened so far.”

Here’s the full list of participants:

  • Mashea Ashton of Digital Pioneers Academy
  • Nicole Assisi of Thrive Charter Schools
  • Carol Becker of Homeschool Cooperative
  • Beth Blaufuss of Archbishop Carroll High School
  • Michael Bolling of CodeRVA
  • Patricia Brantley of Friendship Public Charter Schools
  • Jean-Paul Cadet of Prince George’s County Public Schools
  • Heather Clawson of Communities in Schools
  • Elizabeth Goettl of Cristo Rey Network
  • Kamal Hamdan of California State University and STEM Lab School
  • Christopher Hanks of Grand Rapids Public Museum School
  • Andrew Hart of The Oaks Academy
  • Chris Liang-Vergara of Leap Innovations
  • Stephen Mauney of Mooresville Graded School District
  • Carol Morgan of ArtsConnection
  • Tom Rooney of Lindsay Unified School District
  • Vielka Scott-Marcus of Friendship Public Charter Schools
  • John Swoyer III of MaST Community Charter School
  • Diane Tavenner of Summit Learning
  • Ken Wagner of Rhode Island Department of Education
  • Travis Works of Cornville Regional Charter School
  • Doug Wright of Carroll County Schools