on the record

Congressman Jared Polis is more worried about Congress than about Betsy DeVos. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Denver Post
Colorado Congressman Jared Polis

Colorado Congressman Jared Polis worries more about Congress creating bad education policy than about U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enacting it.

But that doesn’t mean the Boulder Democrat isn’t keeping an eye on the controversial new education secretary.

Polis, who was recently named the lead Democrat on the House’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee, said he believes the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, limits the authority of the secretary. That should give critics of DeVos comfort.

Still, Polis said he’ll be watching to make sure DeVos’s department adheres to the new law — especially its civil rights components.

Polis spoke with Chalkbeat last week about DeVos, the nation’s new education law that he helped pass, and other education topics.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You didn’t have a chance to weigh in on Betsy DeVos’s confirmation. What do you think of the new secretary?

I haven’t yet met Betsy DeVos. But I talked to her on the phone last week. I’m looking forward to getting together. I’ve invited her to Colorado. She reacted very positively to that. I expect to have her here in the near future. She was particularly interested in seeing some of our coding academies and the other nontraditional higher education options we have.

Both you and DeVos are champions of school choice. But there are differences between the two of you. How would you compare and contrast your philosophies?

I’m supportive of school choice that works. Choice for the sake of choice is not always the answer. What matter is, is there a good school to serve all kids? Schools can be run by a charter management organization, a school district. They can be innovation schools. It really doesn’t matter what type of school. What we care about is that every child has access to a high-quality education.

Historically, Betsy DeVos has been a supporter of choice for the sake of choice without regard to the quality of options. Meaning, let’s have more charters even if they’re bad charters. Let’s allow bad charters to operate. Let’s allow school districts to continue operating failing schools.

I’ve been consistently on the opposite side of that argument. If it’s a school that’s failing to get the job done — whether it’s a district school or a charter school — let’s have a real intervention to improve the quality for the kids in that area.

President Trump called on Congress to pass a bill that would support school choice. What do you hope to see in such a bill? What would you oppose?

I just testified last week in front of the appropriations subcommittee on education for the federal charter school program (a federal grant program that provides financial assistance for the planning and launch of charter schools). It’s $350 million a year. It’s tied to quality indicators states have to have. It ties into strong authorizing practices that districts have to have to ensure accountability and equity at the local level. So I’d love to see full funding of the federal charter school program. Not only does it improve the availability of high quality education options for kids, it also helps address the quality issue.

Vouchers for private schools?

I would not be inclined to support a federal program that forces a local school district to have vouchers. Obviously, we have districts in the country that have chosen to go that route. That’s their prerogative. Fundamentally, education is a locally-driven enterprise. So I’d be against the federal government forcing schools to create voucher programs.

What if the program was voluntary?

The big concern the Democrats would have is that those funds would be taken away from public education. When public schools serve 90 percent of kids and we don’t have enough to fully fund special education from the federal perspective or Title I, the last thing we need to do is take those resources away. I think Democrats would be more open to the discussion if the funds came from somewhere else.

There’s a charter school funding fight happening here at the state level. Any thoughts on that bill?

As a best practice, districts already should and in many cases do share their bonds and mill levies with their charter schools. It’s a best practice from a policy perspective and a political perspective. From a policy perspective, charters are very much a part of the school district and they should share in those tax increases. From a political perspective, it helps these mill levies and bonds pass when the charter school community feels good about them. I think it’s good to highlight the conversation at the state level. It’s appropriate that taxpayers fund all schools in their district.

Let’s talk about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. How do you see Colorado and other states enacting the law?

We’re waiting to see how the new secretary will interpret ESSA. I would say it’s likely she will allow even greater latitude in the state plans than the previous administration would have. Frankly, I hope they take the civil rights guardrails of ESSA seriously and don’t just put a rubber stamp on state education plans that fail to address equity and discrimination issues.

There’s a tension between flexibility and accountability and civil rights. How do you see those three tensions playing out under ESSA?

The goal of federal education policy — the spirit of ESSA — is to give states the flexibility to address income disparities and racial disparities in achievement. But not the flexibility to do nothing and allow them to persist. The reason why the federal guardrails are important is because we need to look at the state plans and ask, “Are states using their flexibility seriously to address the achievement gap?”

The fear of some is that we have a secretary who is going to be very hands off. What role do you see Congress in playing to hold her and school districts accountable?

Our committee will be the oversight committee in the House. Certainly, I’ll hold her accountable to the language of ESSA, which maintains a civil rights commitment. We want states and districts to have the flexibility to close the achievement gap, but not the flexibility to not act to address inequities in our education system.

What red flags will you be looking for?

Efforts to disguise metrics. Efforts to brush achievement gaps under the rug.

Do you think there is an appetite or need to rethink ESSA under the Trump administration?

I don’t think that’s likely to occur. It took 15 years to replace No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeed Act. It passed overwhelmingly. I’d be open to improvements and fixes if necessary. But I think the body of the law will work.

What do you say to teachers and parents who are very upset by DeVos and the Trump administration?

I was a big part of passing the Every Student Succeeds Act. Frankly, one of the things that did was remove some of the authority of the secretary. People were upset over the way former Secretary Arne Duncan exercised that authority. So this secretary will have less ability than Arne Duncan did through the unrestrained waiver process. (The Obama administration created waivers from No Child Left Behind in 2011 to give states flexibility after congressional efforts to update federal law stalled.)

I think it can be of some assurance to people that the vast powers of the secretary were curtailed. And there are more specific statutory guidelines for the secretary to follow.

There are some real threats out there. And many of them would require legislation — legislation that has passed the House in previous sessions but didn’t become law because of a Democratic president. I’d be very concerned about “Title I portability.”

What that means is siphoning money out of the schools that serve the most at-risk kids into wealthier schools that serve a much smaller percentage of poor kids. On the ground that means some of the schools that serve 70 or 80 percent of kids who receive free lunch might lose a teacher or two. And schools that serve a predominantly upper class population might gain a quarter of a teacher, which doesn’t really help them.

I worry more about Congress passing bad laws than the secretary enacting them.

President Trump recently withdrew federal guidance to schools on transgender students’ rights. What are your thoughts on that move?

I’m very disappointed. And I expressed over the phone to Secretary DeVos my disappointment. School districts need the guidance. School districts have an interest in avoiding costly lawsuits around these efforts. Many school districts want to do what’s right. And without knowing it’s right to provide a different bathroom or this or that, there are going to be parents on all sides of the issues fighting over these things. It was simple guidance that says, “Let students use the gender appropriate bathroom (of their choice).” It provided an additional safe harbor to prevent a costly lawsuit that takes money away from the classroom. So I was very disappointed to see that withdrawn.

What do you say to school communities who say this isn’t an issue for them or that they’re more concerned this will expose non-transgender females to attack?

Simply, the data doesn’t show that. The data shows transgender students themselves are more likely to be the victim of physical abuse and bullying. And allowing transgender students the ability to use the appropriate bathroom is actually reducing their risk of being bullied. It’s hard to imagine sending someone who presents as a young lady into the male restroom. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s a threat to her own safety. There are many kids who have had to drop out of school because of those unsafe situations. We always have to remember that our schools have to be a safe and civil place for every student.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”