President Trump greets Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during an event celebrating Women’s History Month at the White House on March 29. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized the Denver Public Schools district on Wednesday, saying it only has “limited” school choice options for parents even though it was No. 1 on a new district choice ranking. Now Denver’s schools superintendent, Tom Boasberg, has fired back.

DeVos made the comment about Denver when she was speaking in D.C. at the nonprofit think tank Brookings Institution, which had just released its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, its ranking of school choice in the nation’s 100 largest school districts.

The district with the highest score in the ranking for 2016 was Denver — for the second year in a row. Here were the top scorers:


(From the Brookings’ Education Choice and Competition Index 2016)

The index, done by Brookings senior fellow Russ Whitehurst, is compiled with data from 13 categories, including alternatives to public schools, accessibility of virtual courses, popularity of schools reflected in funding, and closures of schools with declining enrollment because of parental choice. You can see a summary of the scoring guide here.

During her prepared remarks, DeVos said:

“I am hopeful this report helps light a fire under [low-scoring cities] to better serve students. And while we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look.

The two-highest scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive A’s, but they arrive there in very different ways.

New Orleans provides a large number of choices to parents: All of its public schools are charters, and there is a good supply of affordable private schools. The state also provides vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools if they choose. Combined with its easy-to-use common application, New Orleans’ sophisticated matching system maximizes parental preference and school assignment.

“Meanwhile, Denver scored well because the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.”

In those comments, she not only criticized Denver for not offering what she considers enough school choice options, such as vouchers, to parents but slapped Whitehurst’s criteria for his index.

DeVos’s comments were unusual. For one thing, education secretaries usually don’t single out districts for criticism. And at the same event, DeVos had made clear that she believed that decisions on how to educate students were best left to local and state officials, not the federal government.

Not surprisingly, officials at Denver Public Schools were not amused.

Boasberg issued a statement saying that DeVos’s comments underscore the differences between the way the Denver district and the Trump administration wants to provide access to quality schools to all children.  He said:

“We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter.

“A core principle in Denver and one of the main reasons we rank no. 1 nationally in school choice is that we ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district-run and charter schools, where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability.”

That is a slap at the secretary, who has long been an avid supporter of school choice, including vouchers and similar programs that use public money to pay for private/religious school; charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, often by for-profit companies; and virtual schools. DeVos has not been vocal about holding these schools “accountable” for student performance despite repeated scandals involving charter and voucher schools that underperform and/or are found to be misusing public money.

At the Brookings event, she was asked by Whitehurst during a conversation after her speech how the public should hold the Trump administration accountable for its education policy. What metrics, he asked, should be used?

She responded to Whitehurst:

“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are. But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”

Later in the conversation, she said that having information about how well schools are educating children available to parents “is probably the most important” accountability measure, but she has never supported forcing charter and voucher schools to be more transparent with their operations. These schools are not subject to the same transparency laws that apply to traditional public schools.

Boasberg has been on the record as comparing Michigan charter schools, strongly supported by DeVos, less favorably to Denver’s charters, saying there is more quality and accountability in Denver. He told NPR in February, “I think lots of low-quality choices don’t serve anyone.”

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a school voucher program in a conservative school district, saying that “a school district may not aid religious schools.”