So long as reformers in Maryland and other states fail to galvanize and work with poor and minority communities, the movement will struggle to keep the gains made on behalf of our children. Don’t believe it? Consider the experiences your editor has had over the past few years on this front.
Two years ago, your editor ended up meeting with state legislators in Dropout Nation‘s home state of Maryland as part of an unsuccessful effort to convince them to oppose a charter school law that essentially weakened efforts to provide poor and minority children with high-quality schools. Your editor uses the word “ended up” because I wasn’t invited by any of the Old Line State’s reform players.
Originally, I was coming to Annapolis to grab lunch with former Black Alliance for Educational Options President Kenneth Campbell, who was brought to town from his home in Louisiana by Center for Education Reform to lobby those very legislators. But because of the scheduling conflicts and other usual delays that happen when you are meeting with legislators, your editor ended up at the statehouse with Campbell and Kara Kerwin, CER’s president at the time.
Certainly the meetings were interesting for what they were. But what struck me that day was the shallowness of the bench for the reform side — especially considering that the National Education Association’s Old Line State affiliate can call up several hundred teachers to press the flesh with legislators at a moment’s notice. If your editor was contacted to help, I could have called at least 10 other people (all Black) who could have reached out to other state legislators. Those folks, in turn, could have brought their children and others along to explain why passing the bill would harm poor and minority children, especially those in the state’s public charter schools.
But it didn’t have to be just me. Within Prince George’s County alone, there are more than a few influential players who could have helped out. Here are three of the top of my head: Byron Garrett, the former chief executive officer of National PTA and onetime charter school leader. Deborah Veney, the communications czar of NewSchools Venture Fund who still has a home in the area. Even George Parker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers’ District of Columbia affiliate, who has become a stalwart proponent of advancing school choice. All three, along with others, could have helped out if White reformers bothered to pick up the phone.
This experience came to mind today as I read former Thomas B. Fordham Institute President-turned-Maryland State Board of Education Vice President Chester (Checker) Finn’s lament about House Bill 978 and Senate Bill 871, two bills that would effectively condemn the futures of poor and minority children in the state by restricting the state department of education from holding failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity from any form of accountability. This includes banning state education officials from using an A-to-F grading system for measuring school and district performance as well as take over failure mills. Essentially, legislators want the state to abandon its constitutional (and federally-required) responsibility to oversee its public education system.
Even though Finn, along with his former colleagues at Fordham were responsible for pushing the Every Students Succeed Act that all but eliminated the federal government’s role in leading systemic reform (and keeping states such as Maryland from rolling back accountability), I won’t say I told you so — this time. In fact, I sympathize with Finn and agree that Old Line State legislators are harming the futures of children. Yet the success of traditionalists in getting both bills passed is another example of how reformers in Maryland (as well as those in other states) have done a shoddy job of reaching out to the Black and Latino communities best-positioned to blunt opposition to systemic reform.
Not once did Finn or his former Fordham colleague, Andy Smarick (who is president of the state board) bother to call Black and Latino reformers I know to assist them in opposing these efforts. Nor did I get an e-mail at any point asking for just a little help. Chances are that neither Finn and Smarick, nor their allies, approached any of the regional branches of Black fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta to which many of Maryland’s Black politicians belong and must pay heed), or to Black churches such as First Baptist Church of Glenarden, First Baptist Church of Highland Park, and Jamal Bryant’s Empowerment Temple A.M.E. What about Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson (who works in Baltimore and ran for mayor last year)? Or even broadcaster Roland Martin, who is based across the way in Virginia and has a reach into Black communities that rivals nearly every reformer? Nope. Not them, either.
Again, given that Black and Latino players were never asked for help, it is no shock that Finn, Smarick and their allies now find themselves facing bitter defeat. It isn’t just on accountability. Driven by traditionalists as well as by their goal of keeping popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan from gaining any future legislative victories, the Democratic-controlled legislature is working to stifle the new voucher program Hogan successfully brought to life last year and have killed an effort to expand the number of charter schools serving the state.
Certainly this is not a new issue. Dropout Nation has spent the past few years advising reformers to build stronger ties to poor and minority communities. But the admonitions issued from these pages now loom ever larger as reformers in Maryland and elsewhere find themselves in a political environment in which neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to do more than necessary to help all children succeed. More importantly, thanks to abolishing of the No Child Left Behind Act and its powerful Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, as well as the move this month by Congressional Republicans to eviscerate ESSA’s administrative rules, reformers need stronger ground games at the state level in order to oppose NEA and AFT affiliate as well as traditional districts who have the bodies and relationships to roll back past reforms.
Traditionalists would have a harder time if reformers can rally the millions of Black and Latino families, along with immigrant households, single-parent households, and families led by grandparents who are concerned about building brighter futures for their children. But the movement has long failed to embrace the advice of reformers such as Green Dot founder Steve Barr and Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel on building stronger ties: Listen to the concerns of those communities; work with them on the issues outside of education that concern; include them at the decision-making and planning table; don’t simply ask for support when it is time to roll out the yellow t-shirts for protest marches.
The fact that many of the leading reform groups have no Black or Latino reformers in leadership also makes efforts by the movement to win support especially suspect. After all, for these communities, White people are the outsiders who always come bearing proverbial gifts that must be viewed with absolute suspicion. The movement cannot expect to win over the people they proclaim to be serving if people who look like them aren’t there in the first place.
What is happening in Maryland is terrible for our children. But reformers have had three decades to build up the political resources needed to oppose rollbacks of systemic reform. The most-important resource of all is people, especially those Black and Brown who represent the very children we are working to help.
There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race. This is, of course, a Marxist position, one clung to by the Communist Party of the United States to its dying day.
But the basis of American society, as even some Communists admitted, is division by race. This was embodied in the original wording of the Constitution, with its three-fifths rule for counting enslaved Africans and their descendants. It dominated debates in the Senate until the imposition of the “gag” rule, barring discussion of slavery; led to the Civil War, and as Jim Crow, determined social structures and social relations in much of the country until the 1960s.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation, de jure Jim Crow did not vanish; it was transformed into “Jim Crow by another name,” primarily through the operation of schools and prisons. The stronghold of what Michelle Alexander branded as “The New Jim Crow” is the “black belt” of counties in the former Confederacy, running from Norfolk Virginia to, say, Waco, Texas, with satellites in various urban centers, especially in the line from Louisville, Kentucky to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and New York.
Among the northern urban centers, New York City, because of its size and cultural and political significance, is of particular importance. New York City has an African American population of 2,089,000, a larger number than any other city in the country, more than in many states. How well do the New York public schools perform their task of educating all children, including Black children?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the standard by which education is measured in the United States. Among NAEP’s many assessments, that for reading is particularly crucial as an indicator, particularly reading at grade 8, when the schools have had sufficient time to overcome many issues arising from home and community.
Results for grade 8 reading for New York City show that 46 percent of White students are Proficient and above (compared to 42 percent nationally) as are 15 percent of Black students (compared to 15 percent nationally). Forty-four percent of Black students in the city’s public schools and 15 percent of White students were at the Below Basic (difficulty reading) level in 2015.
New York City’s public schools educate three times the percentage of their White students as their Black students to read at grade level in the crucial grade 8 year. And they leave nearly half of Black middle school students unable to read easily, therefore unlikely to graduate from high school “college and career ready,” unlikely to qualify for or to obtain middle class jobs and incomes.
The failure of the New York City public schools to educate Black students is particularly troubling for male Black students, only 9 percent of whom are at Proficient or above in grade 8 reading in 2015. Which means, of course, that 91 percent are not.
Student educational attainment in New York is also sharply divided by income. Thirty-six percent of White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, in the New York public schools reach the Proficient and above levels in grade 8 reading. Other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level 57 percent of the time by eighth grade. Among Black students, 13 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the Proficient level, while 18 percent of those from more prosperous families do so. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in New York is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in grade 8 reading than a Black student from a low-income family.
Notice, however, the different sizes of the gaps between students from relatively poor and relatively prosperous families among Black and White students. It is 21 percentage points among White students, five among Black students. Or, White students from more prosperous families are 58 percent more likely to read at grade level than White students from less well-off families, while with Black students it is 38 percent. NAEP’s records for New York City assessments of this type go back only to 2003, but if we analyze those, we find that the family income differences for White students are pretty steady, over time, but for Black students they are narrowing, from 13 percentage points in 2007 to 5 percentage points in 2015. The reading ability of New York City’s Black middle class students is declining, according to NAEP, while that of Black students from lower income families is remaining relatively flat.
How can this be interpreted? New York is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as are its schools. While since the (Lyndon) Johnson administration formal housing segregation has been illegal, in New York City even middle class Black professionals are ghettoized. Therefore, their children go to the same schools as do the children of the poorest, single parent, families. In theory, this should not matter. In theory, all schools would provide educations of equal—high—quality to all students. Now, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn I want you to look at . . .
If we are done with that, it is obvious that all but 15 percent of Black children (and 9 percent of male Black children) in New York City are being provided with inferior educational opportunities because they are Black. And of those, comparatively successful students, many are the children of school teachers and other highly educated parents, in effect, home schooled: the home environment making up for the deficiencies of the school (rather than the idealized opposite).
The racism of the New York City public school system is more or less overt, as witness the unspeakable racial imbalance of the system’s selective high schools, which year after year admit so few Black students that those could be accounted for by the number of children of Black United Nations diplomats. The outcome of all this is that the 65 percent of Black students entering grade 9 in New York City who were given diplomas four years later include about 40 percent who could not read at grade level when they were in grade 8 and probably could not read eighth grade material when they were given diplomas. More than one-third of the system’s Black students do not graduate from high school, two-thirds or more of those who do are far from “college and career ready.”
If a system fails in its professed purpose—say, educating children—more often than chance would indicate, and continues to do so over time, it is probable that it is, in fact, achieving its actual purpose, in this case, perpetuating racism.
Your editor had little hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would demonstrate competence — as she didn’t do during January’s hearing before a U.S. Senate panel — after last month’s confirmation by the full body. Nor did I think she would be able to stand up successfully and strongly on behalf of our most-vulnerable children against those in the current administration who mean to do harm against them.
Based on events of the last two weeks, both my suspicions and those of other reformers have been confirmed. Which is why the movement (and those within it who are still committed to building brighter futures for all our children) will have to work zealously on the behalf of our youth.
The DeVos regime demonstrated a stunning lack of basic public relations savvy earlier this week when the Department of Education issued a press release on the current administration’s new executive order on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that served as a tool for its messaging on expanding school choice.
The agency could have simply stated that the executive order, meaningless as it is (because no additional money would be provided to those institutions), is an important move to make on Black History Month because it affirms the important role universities such as Howard and Wilberforce have played in helping generations of Black people access higher education and oppose the racialism that is America’s Original Sin. Instead, in a politically tone-deaf manner DeVos and her staff used it opportunistically to tout the administration’s other priorities, declaring that HBCUs “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”.
The outrage over the remarks, both from traditionalists and many civil rights-oriented reformers, as well as Black people in general, could have been easily anticipated. After all, HBCUs didn’t come to existence because of the desire for higher-quality options, but because southern universities (especially public universities funded by the tax dollars of African Americans) wouldn’t allow young Black adults to sit in their classrooms. More-importantly, while a case can be made for the role of HBCUs as a form of choice in higher education, Black History Month is just not the time to do that. All DeVos did was make it even more-difficult for Black reformers and others to support the expansion of high-quality school options our children need and deserve.
All of this could have been avoided if one of DeVos’ appointees made a call to any number of Black school reformers, especially those who aren’t tied to the American Enterprise Institute or the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A call to DeVos’ predecessor, John King (now at the Education Trust) or even yours truly would have sufficed. Or better yet, talk to any of the Black people working in the Department of Education’s headquarters on Maryland Avenue. This didn’t happen, because of incompetence in handling public relations (a key tool for the agency’s task of overseeing federal education policy), along with a lack of concern for the families and communities of Black children.
The good news, or so it seems, is that DeVos didn’t repeat that error in this morning’s USA Today op-ed touting the meager efforts done so far by the current administration.
Meanwhile DeVos’ inability to stand strongly on behalf of the most-vulnerable became clear last week when unsuccessfully fought now-embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rest of the current administration over its move to repeal the Obama Administration’s executive order requiring traditional districts and other public school operators to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.
The directive, which was issued last year after North Carolina interfered in the decisions of cities and districts by banning any accommodation of transgendered youth, was helpful in protecting those children from bullying, but engendered the ire of those ideological conservatives who both oppose gay rights as well as felt that the Obama Administration shouldn’t have enforced the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of school-age children.
As Politico‘s Caitlin Emma reported, DeVos pushed for a “more-cautious” approach on rolling back the guidance, asking for a comment period that would allow gay rights activists and others to at least offer feedback before the administration made its long-stated goal a reality. One source told Emma that DeVos mindful of the criticism she received during the confirmation for her family’s support of gay conversion therapies and opposition to gay marriage, didn’t want to roll back the rules at all.
But she could not beat back Sessions, long an opponent of enforcing the federal government’s civil rights role, who wanted to roll back the rules before the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal in G.G. v. Gloucester County, which involves a district’s decision to not accommodate a 17-year-old’s use of the men’s restroom at a local high school. At the end of the day, the current administration once again proved itself unwilling to do the right thing by vulnerable children.
The inability of DeVos to fight strongly on behalf of our children in this role should surprise no one. As Dropout Nation noted back in November, DeVos refused to condemn then-President-Elect Donald Trump for his campaign of race-baiting and bigotry. Instead of condemning him for speaking ill of the families of Muslim, Black, and undocumented immigrant children, she expressed her willingness to work with the administration. Any effort she may mount on behalf of vulnerable youth was bound to be weak.
The fact that the current administration is hostile to the communities and families to which these children belong also makes it difficult for even the few good people who may be within it to stand up on their behalf. After all, one of the first actions this administration took was to essentially bar Muslim refugees from seven countries (including children fleeing war-torn Syria as well as five-year-olds seeking surgery and medical help) from entering the United States. The move, since struck down by a federal appellate court panel, is part of the long-term ideological goal by President Trump’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, to rid the nation of immigrants and socioeconomic minorities who aren’t Caucasian. [The executive order enacting the Muslim ban also barred refugee children from Central American nations from entering the country.] American public education will be as much a front as immigration in their racialist efforts.
The current administration isn’t standing alone in this. As seen in November, there is a significant number of Americans, most of them White (and sadly, many of them calling themselves Christian), who are perfectly happy to support those measures. As much driven by the desire to support policies that harm their fellow human beings as well as by their nativist fears of America becoming increasingly more diverse and less-White, they welcome the current administration’s efforts.
Also in the current administration’s amen corner: Many of those who call themselves conservative school reformers. While those so-called reformers may attempt to distance themselves from the worst of its more-noxious ideas, they are perfectly willing to support any effort by the administration to roll back the federal role in education policy (so long as it continues to support the expansion of school choice). This includes the Obama Administration’s efforts to stop districts and charters from overusing out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that damage the futures of black and other minority children.
For the reformers who remain focused on building brighter futures for children, the fight will only get harder as the current administration remains in office. They cannot expect DeVos or her appointees, regardless of any personal relationships, to be supportive in any way that will actually be helpful. So the movement must focus on advancing systemic reform in spite of DeVos’ presence or that of the administration.
This starts with the regulatory process, which includes administrative rule-making and the various comment periods during which regulations and other policies are red-lined (or rewritten and amended). The current administration will work hard to shut out civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers. But those reformers can easily use laws requiring public input to expose any efforts to weaken xisting systemic reforms as well as beat back any efforts to dismantle important data systems such as the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Concerns about the future of the latter is one reason why a coalition of groups, including Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, Teach for America and the Education Trust, issued a letter this week demanding that the data system remains comprehensive and intact.
None of what has been done so far by DeVos or this administration has been shocking or surprising. Nor should reformers be stunned. It will only get worse. Which means reformers must get to work.
There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.
The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.
A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools. That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.
There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools. There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.
However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other. This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school. Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.
In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City. Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.
So far, so good.
Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results. First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty. That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present. Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents). Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.
The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities. They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches. Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.
However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools. Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively. In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between every four and five years for the local traditional schools.
The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees. The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond. In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.
Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?
One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive. There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..
The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.
The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools. There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children. It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.
Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success. In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries. We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.
Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.
Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.
What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.
There should be no surprise that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon by the Senate. Nor should anyone be surprised that her confirmation required a vote by Vice President Mike Pence in his role as ceremonial leader of the federal upper house. DeVos has managed the astounding feat of gaining more votes against her confirmation than any previous appointee to the post.
Also not shocking, of course, is the visceral reaction to DeVos’ confirmation from those who supported and opposed her, especially conservative, centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers in an increasingly divided movement.
On one side, American Federation for Children, the school choice advocate DeVos previously chaired before her nomination, declared that her confirmation is “a time of opportunity and transformation”, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education sent out tweets thanking Senate Republicans (other than Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) for voting for her. Meanwhile Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute celebrated DeVos’ nomination, accusing opponents of her nomination of “being unfair to her”.
On the other side, DeVos’ immediate predecessor as education secretary, current Education Trust President John King, hoped that DeVos would “prove us wrong”, while House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Democrat Bobby Scott declared that she “failed to make a credible case” for getting her job. Catherine Brown, the education czar for the Center for American Progress (which has emerged as the leading school reform outfit opposed to DeVos’ confirmation — and garnered the criticism of conservative reformers for its stridency), proclaimed that DeVos’ confirmation was an example of how the Amway heiress’ fortune bought her support despite being “Unprepared, unaware, and unqualified.”
Your editor has already spent months explaining why DeVos shouldn’t be Secretary of Education. Certainly her strong support for expanding school choice is much appreciated here on these pages. But transforming American public education requires more than championing choice. A Secretary of Education, who runs the agency charged with ensuring that all children, especially those black and brown, gain high-quality education must be strident and vocal against those who want to subject the most-vulnerable to the rarely-soft bigotry of low expectations, oppose bigotry even from her counterparts within an administration, and have curiosity and grasp of the policy and practice issues within American public education. DeVos has exhibited none of this so far, and unlike King, your editor has no expectation that this state of affairs will change.
This, by the way, extends to other appointees whom DeVos is bringing to the Department of Education. Certainly some of the people coming to work for the agency — including former Thomas B. Fordham Institute staffer Michael Brickman, and Matt Frendewey (who was running American Federation for Children’s communications department) are people who have proven their commitment to helping all children succeed. But past performance isn’t enough — especially when choosing to work for an administration that has denigrated the families of immigrant children, Latino children, and those of the Muslim faith. Your editor prays for them to do right by all children — and so should you. They will need every prayer for discernment we can give.
But in any case, DeVos now holds the office. Which means that reformers must continue to do the hard work transforming American public education regardless of what she and her appointees do — and, given the Trump Administration’s professed and public bigotry against those who aren’t white, in spite of them.
This starts by remembering our mission: Building brighter futures for every child, no matter who they are or where they live. As civil rights activists of the last century understood, there will always be administrations, elected officials and interest groups who will be hostile against helping all children succeed. What matters more is that we work smartly, strategically, and stridently for children as well as the families who love and care for them.
It starts by playing the Capitol Hill political game. Over the next four years, there will be regulations that will be drafted and finessed through administrative rulemaking and red-lining; legislation that will be deliberated and debated; and meetings that will be held quietly and privately. Reformers must get into every step of these processes, and master every arcane rule that can either stop legislation from passing, or lead to its passage.
This means remembering that the most-important battles over overhauling American public education lies not in Washington, but in the statehouses and local communities throughout the nation. Now, more than ever, reformers must build stronger ties to families and communities (including immigrant households, single-parent families, grandparents, and minority households).
It also means working more-closely with Black Lives Matter activists and others working to reform the criminal justice systems that also harm so many of our children. And it even means working with immigrant rights groups and branches of the American Civil Liberties Union that are fighting stridently against efforts by the Trump Administration to deport undocumented immigrants as well as working to protect children covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Finally, it means advancing the solutions needed to help every child succeed. From overhauling how we recruit, train, manage and compensate teachers, to expanding choice and Parent Power, to advancing stronger accountability (and ensuring that every institution and adult is providing high quality education to our children), there is much to be done, much we can do, and not one minute to waste.
Along the way, there will be divides between various camps in the reform movement. In some cases, reformers will have to agree to disagree. Other times, there will be open conflict. Some within the movement will leave it because they feel that colleagues with different ideologies are on the wrong side. This is to be expected. What must be accepted among all reformers is that there will be conflict. What needs to be done is to make those conflicts productive so that it crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates so that we can build better worlds for our children.
Now that the battle over DeVos’ confirmation is over, let’s continue working for brighter futures for every child. Especially in this age, they need us to do all we can for them.