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March 3, 2017 standard

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.

February 7, 2017 standard

By tonight, we will know whether Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. But it has become clear that there is significant opposition to her possible tenure — and she has proven that she is undeserving of the job.

As you already know, the Amway heiress’ effort to win confirmation hit snags within the past week. First came the rather narrow 12-to-11 approval last Tuesday by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee after a rancorous executive session that featured Ranking Democrat Patty Murray sparring with the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, over his casting a vote for the nominee on behalf of colleague Orrin Hatch (who wasn’t present at the time).

Then last Wednesday, two Republicans on the committee, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, announced that they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation, effectively creating a 50-50 tie in the full Senate and casting doubt about her chances of winning. As you would expect, movement conservatives such as the editors at National Review accused both of doing the bidding of the National Education Association, which, naturally, opposes DeVos’ confirmation.

While conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute worked to spin the news as a sign that DeVos would gain confirmation (a funny thing given that they have been wrong about so much else when it comes to congressional votes), news that other Republicans, including Nevada’s Dean Heller, were still undecided and leaning towards voting her down cast new doubts on her chances.

Then on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that a vote on DeVos’ confirmation set for today was being delayed until Tuesday. The stated reason was to give Republicans a chance to spend time with donors at an out-of-the-Beltway event. Left unsaid: That other Republicans, including those in states with influential American Indian tribal populations opposed to DeVos such as Oklahoma and Alaska, are likely under pressure from those tribes to vote her down. That there are plenty of Senate Republicans, more-concerned about beating back Democrat efforts to stop the confirmations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch, willing to give opponents an easy victory by letting DeVos lose her bid is also a factor.

Meanwhile DeVos has taken more hits, many of them self-inflicted. Just as the Senate education committee voted on her confirmation last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that several passages from DeVos’ response to questions posed by Murray were cribbed from various sources, including an Obama Administration report. For someone being put at the helm of overseeing American public education, the allegations of plagiarism against her (and, given reality, staffers who wrote the response for her) angered even more people than necessary. At the same time, DeVos’ response to Murray that she would not require linking data on charter school performance to their operators alarmed reformers who are looking to improve the quality of student learning.

The chance of DeVos being confirmed today is still rather high. After all, even with a tie vote, all the Republicans and President Donald Trump need for DeVos’ victory is for Vice President (and President of the Senate) Mike Pence to show up and cast a vote. Which, of course, he will. There’s also the fact that DeVos’ nomination is scheduled before that of Sessions, giving the latter the chance to vote for her. But the fact that Senate Republicans waited so long to vote on her confirmation is one sign that there is little unity within the caucus behind her tenure.

As your editor expected back in December, DeVos’ nomination has divided the school reform movement as bitterly as every other discussion of late.

Falling in line with their ideological fellow-travelers, conservative reformers have largely lined up behind DeVos, arguing that any opposition to her has been driven by the smearing of her record and her character as well as what Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls a lack of civility. Given that many conservative reformers are recipients of donations from DeVos and her family’s foundations, this is to be expected.

Centrist Democrats and civil rights-oriented reformers, on the other hand, have raised concerns about DeVos’ competence and willingness to aggressive advance strong accountability. They have found themselves allied with opponents of school choice such as Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in opposing DeVos’ confirmation. The latest announcement came last Thursday when former Secretary of Education John King announced in his new role as president of the Education Trust that he and the organization actively oppose DeVos’ confirmation.

Meanwhile those outside of school reform have debated over DeVos — and their arguments have painted either side in a good light.

Allies of DeVos have argued that she would be a breathe of fresh air because she is an “outsider”. Yet in doing so, they fail to admit that her long (and largely beneficial) advocacy for advancing the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, along with her role as a leading force in transforming public education in her home state of Michigan, makes her as much of an insider as AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. More-importantly, despite DeVos’ poor performance last month before the Senate education panel, they continue to dismiss legitimate criticisms of DeVos’ competence as being mere politicking.

On the other side, traditionalist arguments that DeVos will destroy American public education is absolutely silly. They are still stuck in the outdated notion that public education is about traditional districts and other bureaucracies, and refuse to embrace the concept of providing all children — especially those black and brown — with high-quality opportunities to learn regardless of the type of provider. They lambast DeVos for not sending her kids to traditional public schools while conveniently ignoring the fact that Former President Barack Obama himself didn’t do so either.

At the end of the day, the grandstanding of many DeVos’ allies and critics don’t matter. What does matter is if there are legitimate reasons to not confirm DeVos. From where your editor sits, there are more than plenty.

As I have noted back in November and December, DeVos would be taking charge of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown at a time in which the administration’s key leaders (including Trump and his consigliere, Steve Bannon), have demonstrated records of denigrating them and their families. No matter her assurances to the contrary, there is almost no way DeVos can enforce those civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act, especially since it is likely that Trump will work to gut the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.

DeVos’ unwillingness to condemn the bigotry of Trump and his underlings (especially the failure immediately after his election last November to demand his apology for rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children) means that she will be unreliable in overseeing the federal government’s role in protecting the educational civil rights of black and brown children. To expect DeVos to show courage for our most-vulnerable once she’s in office when she hasn’t done so thus far is pure folly.

Her opposition to last year’s effort in Michigan to bring stronger accountability to the Wolverine State’s charter school sector (as well as bring high-quality schools to areas of Detroit outside of the center city deprived of those options) is problematic to say the least. At best, the episode shows that she is far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability. Some of her allies will note that she supported requiring private schools in Louisiana taking in children in the state’s voucher program to take state tests, and that is admirable. But what an influential player does in her own home state matters more. On this front, she was more-willing to allow problems within Michigan’s charter school sector to remain in place.

Most importantly of all, DeVos has shown almost no knowledge or even basic curiosity about either the underlying causes of the woes within American public education or about what role the federal government can play in advancing systemic reform. Certainly your editor doesn’t expect an incoming Secretary of Education to know absolutely everything about the ins and outs of policymaking or practice. But that person should demonstrate basic knowledge about current teacher quality reform efforts; exhibit interest in how states are working to overhaul the recruitment and training of school leaders; understand the debate over overuse of harsh traditional school discipline; and understand why presidents since Ronald Reagan have embraced the concept of the federal government as a key lever in advancing systemic reform.

DeVos exhibited none of this during her confirmation hearing last month. What she did demonstrate, however, was her arrogance, her flippancy, and her lack of basic knowledge about education policy. The fact that she had to be lectured by senators on such matters as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is unacceptable for someone who is looking to oversee the most-important federal education in American public education. Put simply: DeVos doesn’t deserve the job, a point reformers who have opposed her confirmation have been making for some time.

If DeVos does get confirmed today, hopefully she will do better than what the record so far has demonstrated. If not, then it is an opportunity for conservative reformers and congressional Republicans to demand Trump to nominate a more-qualified candidate.

December 13, 2016 standard

There has been plenty of discussion about U.S. Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos in the weeks since your editor wrote a series of commentaries about why reformers shouldn’t support her, much less anyone in the incoming Trump Administration. The resulting discussion and sparring among reformers over DeVos exemplifies the splits that have been developing within the movement for some time. Just as importantly, the discussions around DeVos’ efforts to oppose the closing of failing charter schools is another reminder of why the movement must rally around strong accountability for all schools serving our children.

The latest example of the split came yesterday when Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, a prominent champion for the kind of strong accountability measures promulgated by the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act, issued a letter calling out DeVos for her support for anti-gay rights measures and her opposition to holding charters in Detroit and the rest of Michigan accountable for poor performance.[Leadership Council also wrongly chastised DeVos for supporting vouchers. It should rethink its position on that aspect of choice.]

Naturally, Leadership Council was able to get the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and their vassals to sign on to the letter. But Leadership Council also got support from Stand for Children and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, two of the other key players among civil rights players in advancing systemic reform. That three key players within the civil rights wing of the movement have explicitly declared opposition to DeVos — and joined hands with traditionalists to boot — won’t make conservative and even some centrist Democrat reformers very happy. As it is, your editor’s commentaries, along with a piece cowritten by Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries, comments from Catherine Brown of Center for American Progress, and the pronouncement last month by Teach For America has rankled them.

Conservative reformers have come out of the woodwork to back her. This included Jason Crye of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who complained that arguments that DeVos’ place in the Trump Administration tarred school choice with bigotry were “simplistic and unfair”; and Philip Stutts, a public relations man who works for outfits such as the DeVos-funded American Federation for Children, who took to Fox News to tout her school reform bona fides. [Among other conservatives, DeVos has already won the endorsement of National Review.]

Former CNN anchor-turned-reformer Campbell Brown, who wrote a valentine to in her news outlet (which is funded by DeVos’ family foundation). After reformers and traditionalists criticized the column, Brown later announced that she wouldn’t write again about DeVos and stay out of coverage of the incoming federal official. Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, the former editor-in-chief of Education Next, wrote approvingly of DeVos in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile Daniel Quisenberry, who runs the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the lobbying group which DeVos helped cofound, took to the pages of Education Next to defend her and her record on advancing systemic reform in Michigan. Declaring that “DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and students’ success before politics”, Quisenberry proclaimed that she would do the same as head of federal education policymaking. Expect even more public support from conservative reformers in the coming days, especially as some (most-notably the American Enterprise Institute) are reminded that the DeVos family is among their most-important donors.

But even more questions from civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers about DeVos will likely come today after they read Kate Zernike’s New York Times report detailing how the Amway heiress worked zealously this year to oppose efforts by a cadre of reformers (including Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) to overhaul oversight of Motown’s traditional district and charter schools. The plan, which would have created an oversight board, called the Detroit Education Commission, which would have developed an A-F grading of performance for all Detroit schools, shut down failing charters, and pushed for high-quality options to be opened in sparsely-served parts of the city, was scuttled by Republicans who control the Wolverine State’s legislature after DeVos and her family reminded them who finances their campaigns. [The A-to-F grading eventually made it into final legislation that included other reforms for charters statewide.]

Some conservative reformers have already criticized Zernike’s report. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli argues that Zernike failed to mention that DeVos opposed the creation of the school oversight board because of fears that it would end up being captured by the AFT’s local there. [Zernike responds by noting that the local lacked the influence needed to make that fear a reality, though, of course, politics can always change.] Others argue that DEC  was worrisome because the board would be appointed by the mayor instead of elected. This is a strange concern given that many charter school authorizers are neither elected nor even politically appointed. A few even note (reasonably) that Duggan, who supported the legislation, also signed a measure restricting charters from acquiring city-owned property, thus making him unreliable on advancing school choice. You can also expect MAPSA and Jeanne Allen’s Center for Education Reform, both of which have strongly defended Michigan’s charter school sector from criticism, to offer more strongly-worded polemics.

As you can imagine, Zernike’s report is another reminder of a point that folks such as Robin Lake of Center for Reinventing Public Education have been making for some time: That strong accountability is key to expanding school choice throughout the nation.

Certainly over the past three decades, charter schools (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. As Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes determined in its study of charters in 41 cities, the average child gained more than 28 additional days of learning in reading than peers attending traditional district schools. Other data has shown that charters and other form of choice improve the chances that poor and minority kids will graduate from higher education and attain lifelong success.

But as seen in Michigan, not every charter school does the job. As CREDO notes, the average child in a Michigan charter gained 36 additional days of learning in reading over a traditional district peer. More than likely, that is because of the high-quality operators within the sector; as CREDO reported in a special study on the state, 65 percent of charters in the Wolverine State perform either at the same level or worse than traditional districts, making the sector among the lowest-performing in the nation. That 14 percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement is especially troubling.

DeVos’ allies argue that Michigan has closed more charter schools than the national average. What they fail to note is that few charters close because of academic failure. Just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education. The rest were shut down because of financial problems, low enrollment, lost its contract, or were never opened in the first place. [Meanwhile the state is looking to shut down some of the 100 district-run failure mills in coming years.]

Charters in Detroit perform better on average than counterparts in the rest of the state. On average, children in Detroit’s charter schools gain 50.4 days of additional learning in reading over their peers in the failing traditional district, according to CREDO in its urban charter schools study. But as in the rest of Michigan, the performance is driven by the high-quality schools. Fifty-three percent of charters in Detroit either keep pace or do significantly worse in reading than district schools. Just as importantly, because children in Detroit are struggling academically compared to peers in the rest of the Wolverine State, the need to replace failing charters with higher-quality options becomes ever more necessary.

Meanwhile, as CRPE has noted, Detroit also has a charter distribution problem. Most of the high-quality charters in Motown are located in the city’s downtown core, far away from the neighborhoods where the poorest children and families reside. Because Michigan doesn’t require charters in Detroit or elsewhere to provide transportation — and authorizers don’t make that a condition of approval (something that the mayor of another Midwestern hub, Indianapolis, has done for the past two decades) — poor kids are often kept from the highest quality options. What this means is that the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed isn’t being fulfilled for those in the most need.

The key problem lies with charter authorizers — including traditional districts — who have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools are allowed to be charter authorizers even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. But as Education Trust-Midwest noted in its review of charter authorizers in the Wolverine State, even the independent oversight groups do poorly in keeping tabs on charter school performance. One key reason why: They derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they also collect money from them for providing services.

Some of these issues could have been dealt with through the creation of the oversight board. In fact, the DEC could have actually made it easier to increase the number of charters serving Detroit children by assuring taxpayers and others that high-quality operators would come in to serve children still bereft of choice. But DeVos and her allies among hardcore school choice activists were far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability (as well as the possibility that some charters would be shut down, reducing revenue for authorizers and operators alike). By successfully opposing the creation of the DEC, many of the problems remain in place.

Certainly there are reasonable concerns about putting in accountability measures for charters that can end up being regulatory strangulation of choice by traditionalists opposed to them. That failure clusters such as Detroit’s district continue to operate partly justifies some of the skepticism about holding failing charter counterparts accountable.

But as your editor noted two years ago, support for choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Otherwise all we are doing is creating a second system of public education that fails children as badly as the traditional system already in place. The fact that failing districts continue to operate doesn’t justify keeping equally laggard charters open for business.

It is bad enough that DeVos is undercutting support for expanding choice by incoming President and administration that engages in race-baiting, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Even worse is that DeVos has continually remained quiet and not disavowed Trump’s bigotry. But the report on her opposition to reasonable accountability for charters adds another strike against her possible tenure overseeing federal education policy. DeVos doesn’t merit much of a defense.

November 23, 2016 standard

Your editor had plans to write about something else. But President-Elect Donald Trump’s move today to nominate consumer products heiress Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education requires me to comment. Under different circumstances with a different person as incoming president, it is likely I would politely commend her appointment. But in light of who is taking the White House in January, I can do no such thing.

Let’s start with this: At least on the matter of expanding school choice, the incoming Commander-in-Chief could have made a worse choice. DeVos has been one of the foremost philanthropists in advancing the expansion of vouchers, public charters and other opportunities for high-quality education. A longtime chairman of the American Federation for Children, DeVos has a long and admirable record of expanding school choice throughout the country.

Whether or not she would be strong on other aspects of reform, including overhauling school discipline and teacher quality, is an open question. Unfortunately, that she has flip-flopped on supporting Common Core reading and math standards that are helping more children succeed in traditional districts and charter schools. All in all, she is a mixed bag.

Beltway reformers, such as Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, have already issued the typical inside-the-Beltway statements declaring their interest in working with her. Traditionalists such as American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten decry her appointment, proclaiming that she’s the “most ideological, anti-public ed nominee” ever. Some reformers, most-notably Democrats for Education Reform and Teach For America, have correctly stood fast in not endorsing DeVos’ nomination because of Trump’s bigotry. [American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, as myopic as ever on issues regarding poor and minority children, is particularly angered by TFA’s move, accusing the teacher quality reform outfit of not “pretending to be nonpartisan”.] And conservative reformers are pleased as punch.

Meanwhile school choice advocates, especially hard-liners who oppose any efforts by states to hold those programs accountable, think that DeVos’ selection could prove to be a boon for supporting the expansion of vouchers and charters at the federal level. They are especially hoping that she will implement the long-discussed plan among such advocates to voucherize Title I funding, allowing those dollars to follow children.

Could we see a stronger federal effort on the expansion of choice? Possibly. Maybe. But as a moral men and women dedicated to building brighter futures for all children no matter their background, you have to wonder at what cost?

After all, DeVos is joining an incoming administration whose chief executive has had a long and ignominious record of race-baiting, rank demagoguery against undocumented and documented immigrants (including accusing Mexican emigres of being “rapists), and has shown little concern for black and other minority communities. Over the past week, Trump has proven even more-pronounced in his bigotry, first by naming white supremacist Steve Bannon as his top White House adviser; and then nominating Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an opponent of all immigration with his own long history of bigotry, as U.S. Attorney General. Trump’s dedication to  more-restrictive immigration policy — including a declaration to deport three million undocumented immigrants that include children already in public schools — and pronounced opposition to criminal justice reform effectively makes his administration an opponent of the very children DeVos is supposed to serve.

As the likely head of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown, DeVos will have to work closely with both Bannon and Sessions on enforcing existing policies as well as implementing any proposed effort to expand school choice. How can DeVos effectively expand choice for these children when the men with which she must work have demonstrated records of opposing them and their families? How can DeVos enforce the Department of Education’s civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act when Trump is likely to push for the gutting of the agency’s Office for Civil Rights?

This isn’t just a moral issue. Black, Latino, Muslim, and other socioeconomic minority children make up half of the 50 million school-age children in America. In both the American South and western states such as California, they are the majority of children in public and private schools. The policies the Trump Administration will likely promulgate — especially on education — can damage their futures, put them on the path to poverty and prison, and destroy the communities in which they live.

Certainly DeVos will argue that she can help children while working for this administration. But the long history of American public education has proven over and over again that good intentions are slender reeds against the political machinations of the immoral. More than likely, DeVos will be a figurehead within the administration with little real influence on policy when it matters.

This includes expanding school choice. As mentioned, Trump has declared he supports voucherizing Title I funding, an idea championed by congressional Republicans that didn’t make it into ESSA last year. The challenges of making it reality still remain: That the dollars yielded from such a move would not be enough to help poor and minority families in choosing high-quality schools; that it would require congressional Republicans to write language forcing states to voucherize their own state funding systems (an idea that runs counter to the conservative demands that the federal government retreat from an active role in education policy); and that it would be opposed by suburban districts represented by those very congressional Republicans (as well as by urban districts represented by Democrat counterparts). Given the state of play these days on Capitol Hill, DeVos will likely talk a lot about choice without being able to actually help expand it.

Meanwhile DeVos’ long association with the school choice faction of the school reform movement may actually damage both. This is because DeVos’ presence essentially associates the laudable goal of helping poor and minority families gain access to high-quality educational opportunities with an incoming administration already associated with bigotry, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Certainly some reformers will argue that the laudable ends justify the means.  But the ends are corrupted by the means, especially in the form of negative perception of those solutions by the very children and communities for which you proclaim concern. This will be especially troublesome for choice activists at a time in which it is becoming politically harder to make the case for expanding charters, charters, and other efforts.

Your editor cannot congratulate DeVos on her nomination. What I, along with other reformers such as Democrats for Education Reform, can do is pray that she does the right thing for all of our children, no matter who they are or where they live, in spite of being part of an incoming administration that has not one concern for them. And stand up against any efforts by the Trump Administration to damage their futures.

Read more of Dropout Nation‘s thoughts about DeVos. 

August 11, 2016 standard

When it comes to the willingness to sell out the futures of children for support from affiliates of the Big Two teachers’ unions, no public official has done so wholeheartedly than New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Since succeeding the reform-minded Michael Bloomberg three years ago as Big Apple Mayor, the onetime campaign manager for now-Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign has essentially gutted much of his predecessor’s overhaul of the nation’s largest traditional school district on behalf of United Federation of Teachers and its boss, Michael Mulgrew.

But these days, with an array of corruption allegations hurting his chances of winning a second term, De Blasio is learning the hard way that loyalty to AFT and NEA affiliates can often be a one-way street. This, in turn, should serve as a lesson to politicians who spend more time catering to the demands of traditionalists than doing right by children and communities.

As Politico reported yesterday, UFT has all but ran away from public support for De Blasio’s political agenda. Last month, Mulgrew took to the Daily News to blast De Blasio’s sensible move to ban use of out-of-school suspensions against kindergartners and children in the earliest grades, complaining that the move takes away the ability of teachers to control their classrooms. At the same time, Mulgrew has abandoned De Blasio on his efforts to reauthorize mayoral control over the New York City Department of Education, which has been in jeopardy thanks to his feuds with Empire State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republicans in control of the state senate. [Back in June, De Blasio won a second one-year reauthorization of mayoral control.]

UFT has also shown its unwillingness to back De Blasio in one very important way: Money. So far this election cycle, the union hasn’t given a penny to the mayor’s re-election campaign, according to data from the city’s Campaign Finance Board. [It only gave $4,950 directly to De Blasio during his first run for mayor in 2013, and spent nothing on his behalf through its super-PAC, United for the Future.] In contrast, UFT has already donated $4,950 to City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who may challenge De Blasio’s re-election bid next year.

Certainly Mulgrew has one big reason for leaving De Blasio hanging. After all, the mayor is reeling from revelations that federal, state, and local officials have launched five separate investigations, primarily on possible violations of campaign finance law during his successful campaign for mayor as well as on his unsuccessful effort two years ago to help New York State Senate Democrats regain control of the upper house (and essentially give De Blasio control over Empire State politics).

UFT’s parent union, AFT, faces scrutiny for its $350,000 donation to a De Blasio-controlled group at the center of some of the alleged violations, Campaign for One New York, which has been used by the mayor to ring up support for efforts such as increasing Empire State funding for expanding early childhood education programs (from which UFT gained new members and new revenue). The donation came just months before De Blasio signed a new contract with UFT that gives the union nearly everything it wants while increasing the long-term pension and healthcare liabilities that will be born by taxpayers decades into the future. A former UFT staffer, Jason Goldman, is also allegedly caught up in one of probes; UFT told the Daily News that it would cooperate fully with that investigation.

[By the way: UFT’s other activities during the Big Apple’s municipal elections in 2013 have already been scrutinized. One of its political consultants, Advance Group (which did $60,383 in direct work for the union that year), was fined $25,800 last year by both the city’s Campaign Finance Board and the state attorney general for concealing its work for both UFT’s super-PAC and the candidates the union supported.]

Given the stench of scandal surrounding De Blasio’s administration, as well as the mayor’s low approval ratings just a year before the next municipal election, it only makes sense that UFT distance itself from him.

But there are other reasons why UFT is abandoning its rather profitable alliance with the mayor.

For one, there’s the possible challenge Stringer, a longtime beneficiary of the union’s political and financial largesse (including $5,050 in direct contributions to his run for comptroller three years ago, along with $192,333 in independent expenditures through its super-PAC), may pose to De Blasio. The possibility of a more-pliable occupant of Gracie Mansion, someone who owes his entire political career to the union, is definitely something Mulgrew would favor. After all, Stringer has proven more than once that he will take on Eva Moskowitz, the controversial boss of the notorious Success Academy collection of charters who is one of the leading players in advancing systemic reform in New York City. That De Blasio was never the guy UFT wanted in City Hall in the first place makes it easier for the union to leave him behind.

Another reason lies with UFT’s long-term goal of ending mayoral control of New York City schools that began 13 years ago under Bloomberg’s tenure. Certainly UFT has benefited greatly from De Blasio’s oversight of the district. But De Blasio (who wants to keep mayoral control) could lose his job to a more reform-minded mayoral candidate next year, putting the union back on the defensive. Besides, ending mayoral control means putting the district back in the hands of a school board, one that UFT can more-easily influence.

Then there’s Mulgrew’s need to keep control of UFT in the hands of the Unity coalition, which has long dominated the AFT local (and is a key player in the larger Progressive faction that controls the national union). Even with all of Mulgrew’s efforts to disenfranchise members who are currently working in classrooms (and stamp out dissidents who disagree with his agenda), his declining support within UFT (including winning re-election with just 76 percent of the vote, a second consecutive decline) makes him mindful that he can’t ignore their concerns.

One of those issues: De Blasio’s sensible effort to reduce overuse of harsh school discipline that puts far too many kids (including young black men) on the path to poverty and prison. Even as the national AFT uses school discipline reform as a tool in co-opting criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter activists, UFT’s rank-and-file members have little interest in embracing any meaningful change in how they deal with children in their classrooms.

But unlike the rancor from some in the rank-and-file two years ago over UFT’s tag-team with Rev. Al Sharpton on opposing police brutality, Mulgrew can’t simply dismiss their complaints. This is because the union’s job is to defend the autonomy of classroom teachers. The idea that teachers are the only ones who should determine what happens in schools, even at the expense of the futures of children, is a tenet of traditionalist thinking no AFT boss can challenge.

Put simply, UFT’s abandonment of De Blasio shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. Especially to the mayor himself. After all, the union only back De Blasio’s mayoral run at the last minute, only after he defeated their favored candidate, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

No reformer could have ever expected De Blasio, a longtime opponent of systemic reform, to build upon Bloomberg’s efforts. But given UFT’s weak bargaining position at the time, De Blasio could have chosen his own path on education policy. Yet De Blasio sold his administration out to UFT in exchange for a few hundred thousand pieces of fiat money for his political machine.

As part of that deal, he proceeded to give UFT nearly everything it wanted. This included the nine-year contract that increased salaries by 18 percent; actively opposing Cuomo’s successful effort to expand the number charter schools throughout the city and state; and working with the union on its successful effort to eliminate the use of test score growth data in the state’s teacher evaluation system, rendering it useless in rewarding high-quality teachers and removing laggards.

Despite the tough talk from his chancellor, Carmen Farina, De Blasio increased the number of newly-minted teachers granted tenure (from 53 percent in 2014 to 64 percent in 2016), risking the presence of laggards in the classroom for decades. Through his feuding with Cuomo and State Senate Republicans, De Blasio even put the future of mayoral control in doubt.

Having gotten nearly all it wants out of De Blasio, UFT is letting him twist in the wind. This is bad news for a mayor who needs all the help he can get for re-election. But that’s how it usually works in politics. If he loses office next year, the only thing De Blasio will have as a legacy on education policy is the damage done to the futures of Big Apple children under his watch, from subjecting more kids to laggard teachers, to shorting struggling students out of five days of additional learning time during the school year.

Children aren’t the only ones who have lost as a result of De Blasio’s kowtow to UFT. The collective bargaining agreement struck with the union two years ago didn’t require rank-and-file members to contribute more than the 4.5 cents of every dollar put toward their retirements (as of 2013-2014, the latest year available). The low member contributions, along with the salary increases and the decision two years ago to allow 777 teachers to retire early, add to the virtual insolvency of the Teachers Retirement System.

As a result of De Blasio’s fiscal mismanagement, taxpayers (including the children of today) will bear a burden of at least $38 billion (including unrealized losses of $4.2 billion), according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of TRS’ finances. [A full analysis of the Big Apple’s education pension woes will run on these pages next week.] Add in the unfunded healthcare costs for retired teachers (which also went unaddressed by De Blasio during his contract negotiations with UFT), and the high costs of the mayor’s star-crossed alliance with the union will loom large in the decades to come.

There’s a high price to be paid for carrying water for AFT locals who profit politically and financially from educational malpractice. Sadly for New York City and its children, Bill De Blasio won’t be the only one paying it.

April 27, 2016 standard

Contrary to the opinions of many traditionalists and more than a few reformers, the much-necessary discussion about overuse of harsh school discipline in traditional districts and public charter schools should be understood as an opportunity for people in schools to revisit their practices and results, and to consider how they might adjust strategies. For those of us who focus on policy and research, it is helpful to appreciate how many people are already working on the issue.

Since the New York Times and other outlets raised new questions about the school discipline practices of Success Academy last year, I’ve heard from lots of school leaders and teachers who have been wrestling with student discipline. These are men and women who have taken great pains to engage in introspection, both about discipline as well as other practices related to instruction and leadership.

These people talk about discipline. But they also talk about school culture and how to make their schools more successful with all students. We may not always agree with the practices they may use. The criticisms, regardless of who lodges them, may be valid. At the same time, let’s admit that these people are not engaging in surprising or novel exercises.

Personal observations can never substitute for objective data and evidence. But in my own research and interactions, the school leaders and teachers I deal with are downright obsessed with keeping kids on task and with thinking about how to help more kids succeed. They truly “own” the issue of student discipline. They examine data. They look at what they are doing in their classrooms and hallways. They talk together about their values, their practices, and how to adjust what they do. They try to figure out how their practices affect how children behave.  They want children to learn, want to reduce the likelihood that a few kids will act out in ways that make it hard for all kids to learn, and also keep children who are misbehaving from failing and leaving school.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education convened leaders from charter school operators that receive replication and expansion grants under the Charter School Program.  This was a group of very successful charter operators with impressive academic performance. The issue of student discipline was a big priority for the U.S. Department. I honestly came to the meeting a little anxious that there might be too much “talking down” to school people about what they needed to do, or too much defensiveness from the school operators. I was wrong on both fronts.

To its credit, the Obama Administration brought forward the issue as a real challenge that we must collectively address both in charters as well as within traditional districts. They presented the issue as one on which we should all problem-solve. Charter school operators, in turn, came to the topic equally ready to talk about the work. Perhaps because of the careful set-up, there was no defensiveness, no denial of the issues’ importance, or bemoaning how opponents were blowing a few cases out of proportion.

Instead, leaders talked about the conversations they were having with their staff, the examination of data, their brainstorming around what they do when children misbehave, and the ways they can adjust their procedures and programs to support strong learning environments while reducing the practices that lead to suspension or expulsion.  They were talking about how to build consensus about the need for change, and the details of work that might make things better.

The charter school operators at the session weren’t looking to abandon their approaches to schooling. Their schools are highly successful. They have developed innovative programs — and their approaches produce results. At the same time, they realized that the current debate over discipline as an opportunity to leverage what is working well, to engage in serious introspection about their own practices, and to encourage their colleagues to change particular practices that may not always be helpful in improving student learning. All this was in order to design changes that they believe will lead to even better results for even more children.

What we have here is not a “gotcha” for opponents of school choice.  The notion that some single unified approach to schooling has been shown to be unacceptable and that now we will abandon “no excuses” schooling is an incredibly simplistic and unreasonable characterization of what is going on. It is equally simplistic to argue that no introspection or rethinking of how we educate children isn’t in order. Instead, people who work in schools — people that live and breathe student behavior every day — have been stirred by events and a little external pressure to start important conversations.

There are of important mid-course adjustments in the works, and I look forward to talking with them about these changes as they make them.