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  • Charter school advocates in two states oppose aspects of Trump 'school choice' proposal 18 Jan 2017 | 10:54 am

    Date Published: 
    January 17, 2017
    News Type: 

    Aspects of President-elect Donald Trump’s proposal for a massive $20 billion “school choice” program are running into resistance from an unexpected source: charter school advocates in at least two states.

    According to the plan he announced last September, the goal would to allow parents to use federal and state dollars to enroll their children “in the local public, private, charter or magnet school that is best for them.”

    The plan would include provide parents with tax-payer supported vouchers that could be used to pay for private school tuition.  That has been a central  passion of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s multibillionaire nominee to be secretary of education, who will testify before the Senate Health, Labor, Pensions and Education Committee at her confirmation hearing beginning at 2 p.m. PST on Tuesday. She has also been a vigorous supporter of charter schools, and has been a driving force in promoting charter schools in her home state of Michigan. Her husband, Dick DeVos, the son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, even started one, the West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids.

    But so far, charter school associations in two states — California and Massachusetts — are expressing concerns about different parts of Trump’s school choice plan.

    In a letter to California legislators last month, the California Charter School Association came out strongly against any effort by the  Trump administration to extend private school vouchers to the state. “We will actively resist them (vouchers) being forced on our state,” the letter stated.

    The letter noted that “legislation may be brought forward at the federal level to create new student voucher programs.” But, it said, “given that California’s vibrant and growing charter school sector affords parents their fundamental right to choose where their students go to school, we believe that vouchers would be at odds with the needs of California’s public school system.”

    In addition to vouchers, the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association has other concerns.  In a forceful letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA,  last week, it worried that based on DeVos’ history with charter schools in Michigan, a school choice plan she would spearhead would promote charter school expansion without holding them sufficiently accountable for results.

    “We are deeply concerned that efforts to grow school choice without a rigorous accountability system will reduce the quality of charter schools across the country … Without high levels of accountability, the model fails.”

    Warren is on the Senate Health, Labor, Pensions and Education Committee, and the letter asked Warren to use DeVos’ confirmation hearing “to probe the incoming administration’s intention regarding education policy in general and school choice and quality specifically.”

    When Trump selected DeVos to be his secretary of education, the California Charter School Association enthusiastically welcomed her appointment. It still does.

    Asked how the association can back DeVos’ appointment while opposing vouchers for private schools, the organization’s President and CEO Jed Wallace said its support is based on DeVos’ support for charter schools over many years. As with any presidential nominee, he said, “some things you will agree with and some things you will not.”

    He noted there were other positions taken by Trump during the campaign “that are very concerning to us.” That includes threats to revoking the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, which gives temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children without legal authorization.  Some of them are enrolled in charter schools.  Wallace said ending the DACA program would be “completely unacceptable to us.”

    However, because of the size, strength and quality of the charter school sector in California, he said parents have sufficient options without additional choices through vouchers for private schools.  Vouchers might make sense in other states, but not in California. “All we know is that it would not be appropriate for them to be forced on our state,” he said.

    Compared to most states, California’s charter school sector is booming.  According to the latest figures, there are 1,253 charter schools in California.  That’s about 500 more than in Texas, which has the second-most.  Enrollments increased by 30,000, to 603,360 students. Currently about  10 percent of California public school students attend charter schools, twice the national rate of about 5 percent.

    In contrast to California, Massachusetts’ charter movement has faced more obstacles. The state has only 81 charter schools, and advocates are still recovering from a devastating defeat of a measure on the November ballot that would have modestly lifted the current cap on charter school expansion to allow 12 new charter schools a year. In contrast, California’s charter school law permits 100 new charter schools each year, effectively allowing for unlimited expansion in the state.

    Massachusetts also has one of the most strongly regulated charter school systems in the nation. Only one agency — the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education — can authorize charters, in contrast to California, where local districts, county boards of education and the state board can issue charters.

    The Massachusetts letter from charter school leaders pointed disparagingly to a lack of charter school accountability in Michigan, and to the fact that DeVos campaigned against bipartisan legislation to impose more oversight. “We are deeply concerned that efforts to grow school choice without a rigorous accountability  system will reduce the quality of charter schools across the country,” the charter school leaders noted.

    These tensions suggest that a school choice program promoted by Trump and DeVos will not be uniformly embraced by  traditional allies in the “school choice” movement across the nation.

    “A lot of charter advocates and school leaders are worried that people will confuse charter schools with private school vouchers as ‘school choice’ heats up as an issue under DeVos,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “Charter schools are public schools, while vouchers provide money to go to private schools.   Folks are trying to make that distinction clear.”

    Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, said he was concerned that the entire charter school issue would become even more politicized and become viewed as “a Trump thing.” Charter schools, he said, “have always enjoyed a lot of support on the Democratic side of the aisle, and we want to keep it that way.”

    As for the notion of providing vouchers for private school tuition, he said the idea would be a “non-starter” in California.  California voters have twice voted down private school voucher initiatives (in 1993 and 2000).  “The polling (on vouchers) is so negative in California, we never even think about it,” he said.

    To view confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education, scheduled for 2 p.m. PST on Tuesday, February 17, go here.

  • Opposition grows to Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education nominee 14 Jan 2017 | 1:46 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 10, 2017
    Valerie Strauss

    Public education was not much of an issue during the 2016 presidential campaign — but it sure is now as opposition grows to the Senate confirmation of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary  nominee, who once called the U.S. traditional public school system a “dead end.”

    The confirmation hearing by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions had been set for Wednesday, but late Monday it was postponed until Jan. 17, with panel leaders releasing a statement saying the date was changed “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.” They did not note that Democrats had been pushing for a delay because an ethics review of DeVos has not been completed. Matt Frendewey, national communications director of the American Federation for Children, which DeVos founded, said in an e-mail, “It’s shameful that Democrats continue to play partisan politics with hollow attempts to disrupt what’s always been a bipartisan process.”

    DeVos, a leader in the movement to privatize the U.S. public-education system, has quickly become a lightning rod in the education world since her nomination by Trump in November 2015.

    Supporters say that as education secretary she would work to expand the range of choices that parents have in choosing a school for their children and that she is dedicated to giving every child an opportunity to succeed. One of them is Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee that will vote on her nomination. He issued a statement on Tuesday saying that he had met with DeVos and that he knew that she will “make an excellent secretary of education” and “impress the Senate with her passionate support for improving education for all children.”

    Her critics say that her long advocacy for vouchers and her push for lax regulation of charter schools reveals an antipathy to public education; they point to an August 2015 speech in which she said that the traditional public education system  is a “dead end” and that “government truly sucks.”

    Thousands of people have signed petitions, started Twitter campaigns and called congressional offices urging that DeVos not be confirmed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), expressing concern about the nomination, sent DeVos a long list of questions she wants answered, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association sent a letter to Warren — who sits on the confirmation committee — expressing its concern about her nomination, saying in part:

    Both President-elect Trump and Ms. DeVos are strong supporters of public charter schools, and we are hopeful they will continue the bipartisan efforts of the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations to promote the continued expansion of high quality charters while pursuing reforms that will strengthen traditional public schools.
    But we are concerned about media reports of Ms. DeVos’ support for school vouchers and her critical role in creating a charter system in her home state of Michigan that has been widely criticized for lax oversight and poor academic performance, and appears to be dominated by for-profit interests.

    Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has worked alongside DeVos on some school reform issues, said in a December interview with the 74, a news website, that he had has “serious” issues with her confirmation.

    And a coalition of more than 200 national nonprofit organizations on Monday sent a letter (see text below) to the Senate Education Committee accusing DeVos of seeking “to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself.”  The letter was sent by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, composed of groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, a variety of labor unions, and the League of Women Voters.  Teach For America is a member, as is the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Sierra Club. (You can see the complete list of members here.)

    The two major teachers unions are also working against her confirmation, mobilizing teachers to oppose her nomination. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave a speech Monday saying in part: “Betsy DeVos lacks the qualifications and experience to serve as secretary of education. Her drive to privatize education is demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.”

    There is a push, too, by her supporters to persuade the education panel to confirm her as education secretary, which seems likely despite the outcry against her.

    Twenty Republican governors, for example, sent a letter to Alexander, saying that Trump had “made an inspired choice to reform federal education policy and allow state and local policymakers to craft innovative solutions to ensure our children are receiving the skills and knowledge to be successful in the world and modern workforce.”

    Mitt Romney, a DeVos supporter, wrote  in a Washington Post op-ed that her nomination by Trump had “reignited the age-old battle over education policy.” He said that the debate is “between those in the education establishment who support the status quo because they have a financial stake in the system and those who seek to challenge the status quo because it’s not serving kids well.” (Translation: DeVos opponents are self-serving and DeVos and her supporters are thinking about the kids.)

  • Trump’s Pick for Education Could Face Unusually Stiff Resistance 14 Jan 2017 | 1:44 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 12, 2017
    Kate Zernike

    Nominees for secretary of education have typically breezed through confirmation by the Senate with bipartisan approval.

    But Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice for the post, is no typical nominee. She is a billionaire with a complex web of financial investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from the department she would oversee. She has been an aggressive force in politics for years, as a prominent Republican donor and as a supporter of steering public dollars to private schools.

    Her wealth and her politics seem likely to make her confirmation hearing unusually contentious, and possibly drawn out.

    The hearing, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday of this week, was postponed until Tuesday after Democrats complained she had not completed an agreement with the independent Office of Government Ethics that outlined a plan to deal with potential conflicts of interest. The ethics office has said it has not completed its review of Ms. DeVos, which is required before the office can make any agreement. A spokesman for Ms. DeVos said she had responded to a first round of questions from the office last weekend.

    On Thursday, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee that will hold the hearing, said she and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s Republican chairman, “have some concerns about missing information” on the financial disclosure forms that Ms. DeVos has filed with the Senate. Ms. Murray would not specify what they were looking for, because those disclosures are not public, but said they had asked Ms. DeVos for additional information. Ms. Murray said she had “pushed very hard” not to hold the hearing until Ms. DeVos had completed her agreement with the ethics office.

    “This is a candidate with extremely complicated financial dealings,” the senator said. “We have to know, if there are conflicts of interests, how those are going to be resolved. If we don’t have that, it’s incumbent on all of us to say we cannot vote for that.”

    Some Republican committee leaders, including Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have said they will hew to a tradition of not holding hearings until the ethics office signs off on the nominee.

    But a spokeswoman for Mr. Alexander said his panel — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — had “no rules” about a need for an ethics review, and that the chairman intended to hold the hearing on Tuesday regardless.

    Mr. Alexander also said he would limit senators on the panel — 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats — to five minutes of questions each, after opening statements by him and Ms. Murray.

    His office noted that Rod Paige, President George W. Bush’s first education secretary, had a hearing eight days before his ethics review was complete. But Mr. Paige, a school superintendent when he was nominated, did not have nearly the same wealth or financial investments as Ms. DeVos.

    Mr. Alexander’s office said the committee would not hold a vote on Ms. DeVos’s nomination until her ethics review was complete.

    That could take awhile. In a letter to Ms. Murray about the DeVos nomination, the ethics office said on Monday that “multiple rounds of questions and revisions are usually needed before a report can be finalized,” because of the complexity of financial disclosure rules. And some nominees “find it difficult to untangle” their investments quickly. So the vetting process “can take weeks,” the office wrote, “and, in the case of extremely wealthy individuals, sometimes months.”

    Democrats have repeatedly noted that Penny Pritzker, a billionaire real estate entrepreneur who became the commerce secretary during President Obama’s second term, took six months to complete her ethics agreement.

    Ms. DeVos and her husband have a larger fortune, estimated at $5 billion.The Windquest Group, their investment firm, has holdings in many companies that invest in other interests such as Social Finance, which refinances student loans — a potential conflict, given the federal government is the biggest student lender.

    Ms. DeVos also lists herself as a director of the RDV Corporation, which similarly invests in companies with education products, including digital textbooks and online charter schools.

    Unlike most past secretaries, Ms. DeVos has never been an educator or overseen a state education agency. She did not attend public schools, or send her children to them.

    Her primary involvement in education has been as a benefactor and board member for groups that advocate steering taxpayer dollars away from public schools in the form of vouchers to help families attend private and religious schools.

    In her home state, Michigan, she pushed and defended a charter school law that is lax compared with policies in other states. She consistently fought legislation that would stop failing charter schools from expanding, andargued to shut down the troubled Detroit public school system and use the money saved to send students to charters or private schools.

    A Republican group pushing for Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, America Rising Squared, has flooded reporters with testimonials from supporters and politicians who say Ms. DeVos is in line with “mainstream” Americans in her support of school choice. That group, and one calling itself Friends of Betsy DeVos, insist that the opposition to her nomination is funded by teachers’ unions that want to deny poor families a way out of failing schools.

    But school choice means different things to different people. Many educators and groups that support charter schools — which are public — do not support vouchers, which steer public money away from public schools by giving families money to spend on private school tuition.

    So teachers’ unions have opposed her nomination, but so, too, have organizations that have fought unions.

    The main association of charter schools in Massachusetts, for example, which is generally considered to have the nation’s best charters, sent a letter to the state’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, who sits on the committee that will hold the DeVos hearing. The letter expressed concern about Ms. DeVos’s support for vouchers and loose accountability in Michigan, which it said would “reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”

    Mr. Trump has promised to steer $20 billion in federal education funds to vouchers, and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization, said he was worried that theDepartment of Education would take the money from Title I funds, which go to public schools serving the poorest students.

    Other groups have noted Ms. DeVos’s millions of dollars in political contributions to Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, insisting that they recuse themselves from any vote on her. Her supporters have countered that Democrats who receive money from teachers’ unions should recuse themselves, as well.

  • Massachusetts charter school advocates opposing President-elect Trump's education pick Betsy DeVos 14 Jan 2017 | 1:42 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 11, 2017
    Phil Demers

    The Bay State's biggest fans of charter schools are refusing to support the billionaire and aggressive charter school advocate President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to serve as U.S. education secretary.

    Massachusetts Charter Public School Association made a political statement when its director Marc Kenen this week mailed U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren a letter criticizing Betsy DeVos' record on promoting quality education, the Associated Press reports.

    "We're very concerned that if the federal government lowers the standards for charter schools, it would have a negative impact on Massachusetts charter schools," Kenan said, according to text quoted in The Boston Herald.

    MCPSA represents 70 Bay State charters.

    Numerous reports have presented the charter school system DeVos helped shape in her state, Michigan, as lax in oversight and providing sub-par education to students, according to the AP.

    Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrote an editorial in The Washington Post supporting DeVos, calling the nominee "smart, dynamic, no nonsense and committed" and touting her record in Michigan. 

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