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.

"Elizabeth Warren" photo by Tim Pierce (licensed Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed last November’s ballot question to allow more charter schools in Massachusetts — yet she cited the high quality of the state’s charter sector in speaking against the nomination for education secretary of Betsy DeVos, who critics say has not supported rigorous oversight of charter schools in Michigan.

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.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has become a lightning rod for ed reformers who don't want to be linked to her.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has become a lightning rod for ed reformers who don’t want to be linked to her.

The Massachusetts charter organization was invoked again this week in a New York Times editorial condemning 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.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“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.”

 

  • Bruce_William_Smith

    People like Mr Kenen are charter school puritans, who want to impose their definitions of accountability on the rest of the country, to the exclusion of all other choice alternatives to traditional American public schools; Secretary DeVos, on the other hand, rightly wants to expand educational freedom as a human right, one too often repressed by charter school enthusiasts concerned for the purist reputation of their movement, regardless of the consequences for America’s emerging adults, who have not benefited from 15 years of the test-based accountability that these charter puritans have spent their careers promoting, but instead — at least in part because of the restricted curricula imposed on them by these advocates focused on making themselves look good in newspaper headlines — comprise the least competent cohort of young adults in the developed world.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Let’s take a look at the Stanford University CREDO study Michael Jonas says shows “Boston has the top-performing cohort of charter schools in the country.” The study compared real charter school students to “virtual” or not real public school students. How credible is that? Even so, the study’s charter schools student demographics did not reflect Boston’s public schools. The Boston charter schools had 17% special education students while the public schools had 21%. As far as English language learners is concerned those Boston charters had only 8% while the public schools had 30%. So how “top-performing” are those charters when they have a much lower percentage of special education and English language students? Anyhow, how do you compare apples to oranges or more accurately real charter school students to make believe public school students? If you want information on real students just go on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website. In addition, the DESE website has a brief history on how Massachusetts underfunds its public schools. That’s the real story Jonas should be writing about.

  • ajholloway

    Every time I see an image of Warren, I feel like I need a shower.