DeVos selection roils reform sector
Some charter backers rush to distance themselves from ed pick
THE BATTLE OVER President Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, had teachers unions, public school advocates, and many on the political left in high dudgeon. DeVos’s record of support for charter schools and voucher programs, and her lack of any experience in district public schools, made her the target of the most organized effort to date to derail one of the new president’s cabinet nominees.
But her selection has been as much of a lightning rod among some who might seem like natural backers of the wealthy Michigan businesswoman and philanthropist.
Foremost among those whose opposition to DeVos was a surprise was the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. The organization, which represents the state’s 70 independently-run Commonwealth charter schools, has drawn national attention with its stance.
Though DeVos has hailed charter schools as a great innovation that expands education choices for families, the association delivered a letter last month to Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressing grave concern over the DeVos nomination.
The group’s letter underscores a broader angst in the education reform world, where some charter school supporters and other education advocates are cringing every time Trump or DeVos offer words of support for their cause.
The charter association’s letter cited DeVos’s support for school vouchers as well as her support for charter school expansion in Michigan, which has been criticized for its poor oversight and weak accountability for charter school performance. The association said it was “deeply concerned that efforts to grow school choice without a rigorous accountability system will reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”
Massachusetts is known for its stringent review process for granting permission to open charter schools, and many believe this accounts, at least in part, for the generally high quality of the state’s charter school sector. According to a 2015 study from a Stanford University research center, Boston has the top-performing cohort of charter schools in the country.
When Warren took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to speak against the DeVos nomination, the Massachusetts charter association’s letter was her lead card, as she drew a sharp distinction between rigorously overseen charters and the lax approach taken by states like Michigan, where DeVos has focused much of her advocacy.
“Let’s be perfectly clear,” said Warren. “This is not a debate about school choice. It is not a debate about charter schools. There are people on all sides of this debate who are genuinely pouring their hearts into improving educational outcomes for children. Massachusetts charter schools are among the very best in the country, and they understand the difference.”
Warren then said she had received “an extraordinary letter” from the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. She said the letter outlined the group’s deep concerns about the DeVos nomination, “citing her destructive record of promoting for-profit charter schools without strong oversight for how those schools serve students and families. People who work hard to build good charter schools with high accountability,” Warren declared, “are offended by the DeVos nomination.”
“While her nomination gave exposure to an honest and passionate debate about charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools,” it read, “her hard-line opposition to any real accountability for these publicly funded, privately run schools undermined their founding principle as well as her support. Even champions of charters, like the philanthropist Eli Broad and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, opposed her nomination.”
Broad, the Los Angeles billionaire who has devoted much of his philanthropic efforts to supporting education initiatives, including charter schools, sent a letter last week to senators declaring that he found DeVos to be “unprepared and unqualified” for the education secretary position.
The criticisms underscore the convoluted politics of education reform debates, which often defy standard left-versus-right typology, and where some of the most pitched battles involve those in the education reform camp who seem to share the same broad outlook.
Andrew Rotherham, an education policy expert who worked in the Clinton White House, says too many in the media have bought into a “reformers versus everyone [else] frame” in trying to understand education debates. It “obscures most of the nuance,” he says.
Not only does that media view obscure important, but often nuanced, policy disagreements, it can also obscure the overall odd-bedfellows quality of the education reform world, which finds some left-leaning civil rights advocates joining in support of charters with conservative believers in the power of markets and choice.
While critics of DeVos within the reform camp are zeroing in on what they say are flaws in her views, her hard-right stances on an array of issues — to say nothing of those of the polarizing president who selected her — have them running away from the new administration as fast as they can.
But an equally odd twist in the showdown over the education secretary nominee was the sight of Warren extolling the high-quality charter schools in Massachusetts as part of her argument against DeVos, who was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday by the narrowest of margins, 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.
For all of her lauding of the state’s great charter schools, Warren came out against the ballot question last fall to allow more of them to open.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, told the Boston Herald that while Warren “professes to be for school choice,” she “turned her back on charters” in the ballot campaign.
Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts charter school association, said “it was clear that Warren recognized the excellence of charter schools” in the state, and that her opposition to expansion had to do with concerns about “the impact it might have on district school budgets.”
“With the cap lift off the table for now for a while, it’s important that there be people out there who support charter schools who might not have supported expansion,” he said. “We want them to come back on the charter school bus and be supporters. That includes Sen. Warren, and we’re glad she’s seized that opportunity.”