Teachers unions have — predictably — attacked President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a conservative Michigan power broker who has pushed to expand taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools, moves that some teachers see as a threat to public education.
Perhaps less predictably, the Trump-DeVos team also has divided those who consider themselves part of the education reform movement: Some are cheering what they see as an extraordinary opportunity to bolster alternatives to traditional public schools, while others fear that the duo could split the bipartisan alliance that has helped vouchers and charters expand quickly during the past two decades.
Some worry that Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants, inner cities and women — and the support he has won from those who promote racism and anti-Semitism — could drive Democrats and people of color away from any education policies he embraces. Others are concerned that, based on her record in Michigan, DeVos will push for a rapid expansion of school choice — via vouchers and charters — without concern for school quality, leaving families with more, but not necessarily better, options and undermining the argument for choice.
“Will the new administration love school choice to death?” Robin Lake, a charter school supporter at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, asked last month in the journal Education Next.
School-choice advocates believe that giving parents options beyond their traditional school systems allows them to have control over their children’s education and can force public schools to improve. There always have been disagreements among those advocates about how to design and promote choice, but those differences were often played down in the interest of presenting a unified front.
With an incoming administration that appears hostile to unions and friendly to choice, the intramural battles have intensified.
“It’s a little like the transition from the Cold War,” said Greg Forster, a senior fellow at EdChoice, a pro-voucher advocacy group. “Two sides have now become this fragmented landscape.”
One division is over Trump himself. The president-elect has associated himself more with school choice than with any other education policy, pledging a new $20 billion federal program to expand vouchers and charters nationwide.
Forster, a Republican until he left the party this year, favors a free-market approach to education that could get a big boost from the Trump administration. But Forster said he doesn’t want school choice to be identified with Trump, whom he views as divisive and racist.
“We in the school choice movement have spent a generation building bridges between the conservatives and libertarians traditionally associated with the issue and progressives and ethnic minority communities,” Forster wrote in a recent blog post. “We can’t afford to throw all that away.”
In an interview, Forster said that there must be “a bipartisan coalition if we’re serious about this as the future of American education.”
Howard Fuller, a founding father of the voucher and charter-school movements — and an African American who voted for Hillary Clinton — said he does not believe that Trump’s embrace of charters and vouchers will make him “the face of parent choice,” as Forster fears.
“But clearly there’s going to be a lot of antagonism,” Fuller said. “People who oppose parent choice will seek everything they can find to say that this is not a policy that can be pursued.”
The other major point of departure is the degree to which government should regulate and oversee voucher programs and charter schools. Under Trump and DeVos, the main fight in education might no longer be about whether vouchers and charters should expand, but under what conditions.
Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.
The disagreement between these two poles has focused on DeVos, who has played a key role in pushing state legislatures to pass laws that allow parents to use public dollars for private and religious schools.
DeVos also has played a key role in shaping the charter laws and landscape in her home state of Michigan through the Great Lakes Education Project, a lobbying group that she founded and funded.
For choice advocates on the left, Michigan is a prime example of how not to promote school choice. There is no limit on the number of charter schools; there are dozens of entities with legal power to approve new charters, with varying levels of oversight; and there are too many poor-performing charters, they argue.
There also is no central source of information about charter school performance or enrollment, so parents often face a confusing maze of options. And in Detroit — where more than 9 in 10 children are not proficient in math and reading, according to national exams — about half of charters are no better than their traditional-school counterparts, according to a 2013 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO.
“Michigan is in many ways a poster child for what can happen when you have too many authorizers that don’t have good oversight,” said Scott Pearson, a former Obama administration official who now heads the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees charters in the nation’s capital.
Pearson said that with strong accountability, charter schools can be genuine alternatives to traditional public schools, serving all students equitably. But without strong accountability, he said, schools find ways to institute illegal admissions requirements, discourage children with disabilities from enrolling and push out difficult students, he said. “That kind of school choice is not good for kids, and it’s certainly not good for the school-choice movement,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Trump’s transition team declined to make DeVos available for an interview or respond to questions on her behalf.
Proponents of the Michigan model point to the same 2013 CREDO study on Michigan charters as evidence that things are not as broken as critics claim: The state’s charter school students gain an additional two months of learning in reading and math, compared with their counterparts in traditional public schools.
Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, acknowledged that progress in Michigan has not been as fast as anyone would like. And he said that the “true north” that guides DeVos and the organization she founded is the notion that “every state and federal dollar should follow a child to the public or private school of their choice.”
But he disputed the charge that she advocates against accountability for charter schools. Naeyaert said GLEP — and, by extension, DeVos — believe in accountability for charter schools, as long as traditional public schools have to live by the same rules. “What we bristle at is a double standard where failing charters are closed and failing traditional schools get more money,” he said.
Naeyaert said his organization sees Florida, not Michigan, as a model for the nation. Under former governor Jeb Bush (R), Florida expanded vouchers, charter schools and virtual schools; instituted an A through F grading system; and passed a law requiring students to be retained in the third grade if they aren’t reading proficiently.
GLEP has been working to pass similar reforms in Michigan but has also focused on protecting charters from what the organization sees as harmful government intrusion.
DeVos opposed an effort, during debate this year about the state’s bailout of Detroit Public Schools, to create a new commission that would have overseen charter and traditional schools in the Motor City. Advocates for that commission, including many charter supporters, said it was needed to bring some order because too many schools — with up to 30,000 unfilled seats — compete fiercely for students.
DeVos successfully lobbied against the commission, arguing that it would have unacceptably favored traditional schools. GLEP supported two other provisions that increased accountability: one requiring authorizers of new charter schools to be accredited, and another requiring the closure of any school that ranks in the bottom 5 percent statewide for three years running.
Accountability hawks see that as an exceedingly low standard.
How DeVos’s work in Michigan translates into proposals for federal education policy remains to be seen. But it is clear that the debate about the government’s role in boosting school quality amid efforts to expand school choice — a debate that has largely taken place at the state level — is about to get much more attention.
“Maybe it felt to casual observers like there was no disagreement” among fans of school choice, said Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. “But the deck just got reshuffled, and some of these honest, good-faith disagreements are now more out in the open than they’ve been for a number of years.”