what betsy's reading

Has the charter school movement gone awry? A new book says yes, and it’s causing a stir

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

What’s the point of a charter school? Is acting as another option for families enough, or should it have to post higher test scores than other schools, too?

Those questions are at the heart of a growing rift in the education reform world — and the focus of a new book making waves among some of its most prominent conservative figures.

The book, a collection of essays edited by the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen and Cara Candal and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, makes the case that the charter school movement has gone awry: it’s over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.

They appear to have an ally in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In a recent speech to charter school leaders, DeVos criticized lengthy charter applications, warning that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats.”

What’s needed now, the book’s authors say, is more innovation and less of a focus on test results. That argument prompted Checker Finn, the former president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, to call the book “idiocy.” In an email exchange among a number of well-known education reformers, Allen shot back, saying Finn was “catching the same disease that befell Diane Ravitch,” the school choice advocate-turned-reform-critic.

The book’s arguments mark a break from longtime tenets of conservative education reform, particularly the test-based accountability promoted by two powerful brothers, George W. and Jeb Bush, over the last 20 years. And with DeVos at the helm of the federal education department and Republicans in control of most state legislatures and governorships, the manifesto may serve as a blueprint for conservative policymakers across the country.

“I do think the free-market crowd has emerged a bit from the shadows and is sensing in the current administration and political climate an opportunity to muscle into a stronger role in defining the future of school choice,” said Jeff Henig, a professor at Columbia.

Calls for a broader vision for the charter movement

Allen and Eden say charter school advocates can be divided into two camps.

In one corner are “system-centered reformers,” who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.

In the other are “parent-centered reformers.” They want to see a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” DeVos — who appeared at a private reception held by Allen’s Center for Education Reform in June — has described her vision in similar terms.

The rest of the book, “Charting a New Course,” expands on the idea that charter schools need fewer restrictions. An opening piece by Allen argues that the charter school sector has become too risk-averse and uniform, while Eden says that advocates have been too focused on increasing test scores through no-excuses charter schools in urban areas.

In separate essays, Derrell Bradford of the advocacy group 50CAN writes that charters should expand to the suburbs to broaden their political coalition. Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute says that test-based accountability has led to the narrowing of the school curriculum, and University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene argues that test scores are poor proxies for students’ life outcomes and thus are of limited use for regulating charter schools.

Eden and Allen close the book with recommendations that include expanding the number and type of charter authorizers, ensuring charters are not bound by teacher certification rules, and reducing charter school regulations.

They suggest that charter schools should expand not only because of their measurable outcomes but because parents subscribe to their values.

“Fundamentally, chartering is about creating the space for this freedom,” Eden and Allen write. “Some charter advocates view charter schooling as simply a means to an end, as a more efficient way to drive higher test scores. But freedom is a good in and of itself.”

Are authorizers already doing this?

A centerpiece of the divide between the two charter camps, Eden and Allen write, is how the decision is made to close a charter school.

“In a parent-centered ecosystem, authorizers should retain the ability to close a school – but that decision should always be a human one,” they write. “Rather than simply close a school based on a formula for standardized test score performance, test scores should open a serious conversation rather than close one.”

One target of their ire: the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which they see as epitomizing the “system-centered” worldview.

So it’s surprising that Greg Richmond, president of NACSA, says he agrees that schools shouldn’t be closed based on test scores alone — which he says is already the case in most instances.

“It’s not only already happening, it’s something we have been recommending forever,” he told Chalkbeat.

Richmond supports closure laws that create a presumption that charters with poor academic results — usually measured largely through test scores — will close. But he says that authorizers and state accountability systems should look at other metrics like attendance, too.

Eden said he hopes that is what is actually going on, but he fears it’s not, since some states have laws outlining how test scores should prompt school closures.

At the heart of the disagreement is how heavily to weigh parental demand for a school. Richmond says that demand is relevant, though a NACSA guide exhorts authorizers not to “make renewal decisions … on the basis of political or community pressure.”

But political pressure to one person is democracy in action to the other.

“Political backlash is an attempt of constituents — parents, students, teachers — to communicate a strongly felt opinion towards a political actor that has authority over them,” Eden said. “That’s not something that should be short-circuited by policymakers; that’s something that that actor should have to reckon with directly.”

On one particularly pressing question about how to balance family demand and academic performance, the book is oddly silent: The topic of virtual charter schools.

Are these rapidly growing online schools, backed by DeVos and many choice advocates, an example of the innovation the authors seek? What to make of the apparently dismal academic performance — noted in multiple studies — of these schools? By what measures should they be judged?

Eden said he is open to additional regulation, but said he didn’t have a firm opinion on the topic, and not one of the book’s essays mentions virtual charter schools.

the secretary speaks

In departure from Trump, Betsy DeVos calls out ‘racist bigots’ in Charlottesville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos condemned “white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots” in an email to her staff Thursday — without mentioning President Trump, whose equivocal stance on the racist violence in Charlottesville last weekend has drawn widespread criticism.

“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” DeVos wrote.

The letter was more pointed — describing the racist views as “cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong” — than DeVos’ initial tweets on the events. She has been silent since those posts until now.

 

In her email to staff, she emphasized that individuals, and schools, had a part in combating hatred.

“We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear,” she wrote.

But DeVos did not specify what role, if any, the department’s policymaking would play. She has received persistent criticism from civil rights groups for proposed federal budget cuts, her stance on discrimination of LGBT students, and her appointment to head the Office of Civil Rights. (DeVos specifically notes that, “Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.”)

Meanwhile, criticism of Trump and Devos from education advocates has intensified in recent days.

New York City charter school leader Eva Moskowitz — who was initially considered for the job DeVos now holds, and who led Ivanka Trump on a school tour — released a strongly worded letter condemning the Trump administration (though she did not mention DeVos). On Twitter, Kevin Huffman, the charter-friendly former Tennessee education commissioner, called on DeVos to resign, saying, “It is not viable to serve all kids under a POTUS who defends and encourages white supremacy.”

This is on top of persistent hostility from many left-of-center charter advocates, including one of DeVos’s predecessors, Arne Duncan, who called bumps in federal spending for charters “blood money” if they came alongside to Trump’s proposed cuts to education.

The note was sent to staff, rather than posted as a press release. DeVos has not been shy in the past about weighing in on topics beyond education — she quickly issued a statement praising Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate change agreement, for example.

Here’s the text of her letter:

Team,

I write today with a heavy heart for our country. While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past.

There is fear, pain, anger, disappointment, discouragement and embarrassment across America, and I know, too, here within the Department.

Last weekend’s tragic and unthinkable events in Charlottesville, which stole three innocent lives and injured many more, were wholly unacceptable. The views of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal. We all have a role to play in rejecting views that pit one group of people against another. Such views are cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong.

This is what makes our work so important. Our Department, and particularly the Office for Civil Rights, exists to ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation.

Our own difficult history reminds us that we must confront, head-on, problems when and where they exist with moral clarity and conviction. Our nation is greater than what it has shown in recent days.

Violence and hate will never be the answer. We must engage, debate and educate. We must remind all what it means to be an American, and while far from perfect, we must never lose sight that America still stands as the brightest beacon for freedom in the world.

My hope is that we will use this as an opportunity to show that what unites and holds America together is far stronger than what seeks to divide and draw us apart. We can all play a role. Mentor a student. Volunteer at a school. Lend a helping hand and offer a listening ear.

Our work is truly the bridge to a stronger future. Let’s recommit ourselves to ensuring the future is brighter for all.

Betsy

choice for most

Chalkbeat explains: When can private schools discriminate against students?

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

Over $16 million of public funds went to Indiana private schools with anti-LGBT policies last year, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found.

You might be asking: Is it legal to discriminate against those students?

The answer is yes, and that’s become a focus of the national debate about school choice. (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fanned the flames on this one when she offered ambiguous answers about whether all students would be welcome in schools that participated in a potential national voucher program.)

But the rules are tricky when it comes to private schools, especially religious ones. Here’s your guide to understanding when, why and how private schools can say no to certain students.

Are there laws in place that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools. That means when it comes to gender and sexuality, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — is the main piece of legislation in play.

Title IX applies to private schools that accept federal funds — and many private schools do, usually through school breakfast or lunch programs, grants, or funding for low-income students.

However, some schools qualify for exemptions. All-boys or all-girls schools are allowed to restrict their admissions accordingly, for example.

Most important to the discussion of LGBT students: Private schools run by religious organizations are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” A majority of private schools in the U.S. are religious, which means that most private schools are free to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

In Indiana, Chalkbeat found that at least 27 schools that accept vouchers have policies that suggest or declare that LGBT students are unwelcome.

What about private schools that aren’t religious?

At non-religious private schools, Title IX’s nondiscrimination rules do apply. But a change in interpretation means the law offers fewer protections to transgender students than it has in the past.

Under the Obama administration, the ban on discriminating on the basis of sex was interpreted as related either to biological sex or to gender identity. However, the Trump administration rescinded guidance on that front — meaning the federal government considers Title IX to only bar discrimination based on a student’s biological sex.

Do any states have laws that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

Many states have implemented their own nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — in the world of public education. But no voucher programs have such policies in place, research shows.

As a result, private schools are free to turn away LGBT students while still receiving public funding for accepting vouchers.

What about other forms of discrimination?

Private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race if they want tax-exempt status. The executive director of the Council for American Private Education, Joe McTighe, said he wasn’t “familiar with any nonprofit private schools that elect against tax-exempt status.”

If private schools accept federal funds, they are also bound to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

When it comes to students with disabilities, private schools have more leeway to turn students away.

This is partly because students who choose to attend a private school — including through a voucher program — forfeit their right to a “free appropriate public education” that they are otherwise guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires private schools to accept students so long as only “minor adjustments” are needed to accommodate them. But it exempts religiously run private schools.

Under a third law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, those protections apply to religious schools, too — if the school receives federal funds.