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.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.