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‘I think that’s blood money’: Arne Duncan pushed charters to reject funds from Trump admin if budget cuts approved

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner

For left-of-center education reformers, the proposed Trump budget amounted to a devil’s bargain.

They could support the budget plan, which would give hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools. But they would have to do so knowing it slashed education spending across the board, including money meant for poor students.

Around 25 leaders talked over the dilemma at a previously unreported meeting on March 16 — coincidentally, the same day the initial budget plan was released. There, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a provocative suggestion: charter leaders should refuse to accept federal money designated for charter schools if Trump’s cuts to education went through.

Duncan called those funds “blood money,” according to two attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was intended to be private.

The meeting, originally called to discuss the broader question of how progressive education reform should survive in the age of Trump and the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, points to the widening fault lines within that movement.

The gathering included another former education secretary, John King, as well as leaders of groups such as Teach for America and Democrats for Education Reform and from the Achievement First and Uncommon charter networks.

Duncan declined to speak about the meeting, but he reiterated his view to Chalkbeat in an interview.

“If [DeVos] is cutting money for traditional public schools and putting money into charters … I’ve told them not to take the money,” said Duncan. “I think that’s blood money.”

“We all [have] got to be thinking about not just the kids we serve directly, but all kids,” he said.

The deep cuts proposed by the administration are not seen as likely to make it through Congress; a House budget bill released last month would reduce education spending by $2.4 billion, not by the Trump plan’s $9.2 billion. Duncan emphasized that the cuts — and thus a potential response from charter leaders — are still hypothetical.

Liz Hill, the Department of Education press secretary, sharply criticized Duncan’s suggestion to charter leaders.

“Make no mistake: following this approach would hurt students. It’s an insult to the millions of students and parents benefiting from charter schools, and the millions more on waiting lists trying to get into a school that better meets their needs,” she said in a statement. “It’s especially sad to see such a misguided effort advanced by a former Secretary of Education.”

‘It’s not just about accountability or school choice’

The left-of-center charter school advocates who held sway in the Obama administration have a complicated relationship with DeVos, who backs charter schools but also private-school vouchers and, as a member of the Trump administration, is viewed skeptically by many.

Some, including Success Academy Eva Moskowitz, a former Democratic New York City council member who was briefly considered for education secretary, have praised DeVos. (Moskowitz was not at the March meeting.) Other Democrats, such as Duncan, King and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats For Education Reform, have been far more critical.

The overarching question at the March discussion, organized in part by Jeffries, was how education reformers should respond to the Trump and DeVos administration, including on issues beyond education. (Jeffries declined to comment, saying the meeting was private.)

“There was a broad consensus that we need to expand our view of what it is to be about kids,” said one person present. “It’s not just about accountability or school choice or things like that — it’s also about protecting the civil rights of our children and protecting our immigrant kids.”

This perspective was strongly articulated by John King. (A spokesperson for the Education Trust, where King is now president, declined to comment.)

“There was a sincere tension between people feeling like they’d be abandoning kids if they just joined the general political fight … and a sincere belief that this Trump administration is going to destroy the country and part of that, destroy the lives of many kids,” said the attendee.

There was some disagreement on the issue of school vouchers — DeVos’s signature idea — though few participants were strongly in favor of the policy.

Jonah Edelman, who runs the advocacy group Stand for Children and attended the meeting, would later pen an essay with American Federation for Teachers president Randi Weingarten calling vouchers “bad for kids, public education and our democracy.” (Edelman did not respond to a request for comment.)

‘This funding is vital’

Two attendees said Duncan’s idea of declining federal charter funds received mixed reactions, though most in the room were not charter leaders — that is, those who would have to make the difficult decision not to accept federal money.

“There are some people who wanted to take this more punchy, assertive approach and there were some people … who were less inclined to do that,” one said.

Duncan, for his part, said he had “had that conversation with some charter network leaders” — though he declined to get into specifics — and said the idea was not dismissed out of hand.

“Some people it really made them stop and think, and others I could tell were already thinking along those lines,” he said. “This is my best thinking; they are ultimately going to make their own decisions.”

None of the three high-profile charter networks contacted by Chalkbeat endorsed Duncan’s suggestion. Achievement First, KIPP, and Uncommon have all have previously received millions of dollars from the federal Charter School Program, which supports the expansion of existing charter operators.

Steve Mancini, a spokesperson for KIPP, said CEO Richard Barth was present for part of the March meeting but left before Duncan arrived.

Both Mancini and Barbara Martinez, the chief external officer of Uncommon Schools, emphasized their organizations’ strong opposition to the Trump budget, but declined to take a position on potentially refusing charter school funds.

In a statement, Dacia Toll, who is the president of Achievement First and was at the March meeting, sounded a skeptical note on declining federal dollars, while reiterating her “firm opposition to a federal budget that hurts our students, families, and communities.”

“We, like virtually every school district in this country, will accept federal funding because we depend on this money to provide our students, especially our highest-need students, with the services they need,” Toll said, noting that Achievement First won a multi-year federal grant in 2015. “This funding is vital.”

National charter school groups have tried to walk a careful line with the new administration. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools praised the additional money for charter schools requested by the Trump administration, though criticized other aspects of the budget.

Meanwhile, at the meeting, frustration with the Trump budget was palpable. Many present believed that there needed to be a firm and public denunciation of the proposal.

Two weeks after the meeting, on March 29, USA Today published an op-ed by the heads of Achievement First, KIPP and Uncommon Schools and endorsed by a number of other charter school leaders.

“We cannot support the president’s budget as proposed,” the op-ed read, “and we are determined to do everything in our power to work with Congress and the administration to protect the programs that are essential to the broader needs of our students, families and communities.”

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.