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Betsy DeVos Warns Charter Schools Against Becoming 'The Man'

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos challenged the charter school community, which has long been seen as a vanguard of innovation in education, not to allow itself to turn into just another entrenched bunch of paper pushers. 

"Charters' success should be celebrated, but it's equally important not to (quote) 'become the man.' ...  Many who call themselves reformers have become just another breed of bureaucrats," DeVos said in a speech here Tuesday to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, the nation's biggest charter school organization. "We don't need 500-page charter school applications. That's not progress. That's fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place. Innovation, iteration and improvement must be a constant in our work." 

That line could be seen as a veiled shot at charter proponents who have criticized the approach to charter accountabilty that organizations backed by DeVos pushed in Michigan. Supporters of DeVos' work in the Wolverine State tout what they view as a blooming, diverse charter sector that gives parents a wide array of options.

But critics say that low-standards and lack of accountability for charter operators have lead to the proliferation of low-quality charter schools in Michigan, particularly in Detroit.

In fact, Eli Broad, a philanthropist who has funneled millions to charter schools, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association came out against DeVos' nomination to head the U.S. Department of Education in part because they worried that she wouldn't champion strong accountability for charter schools. (More on DeVos' role in creating Michigan's charter sector and a look at how it is doing in this story.)

In her speech, DeVos at the same time made it clear she doesn't see charters—or private schools for that matter—as a silver bullet that will "cure" all of the problems in education.

Instead, she said, policymakers should focus on helping parents get access to the schools that are right for their particular children, not on supporting a specific type of school or system.

"I suggest we focus less on what word comes before 'school—whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed—and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve," she said. "We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students."  

Trump Tension

DeVos acknowledged that some in the charter community have pushed back against the Trump administration's budget proposal, which would hike charter school funding by $167 million, to $500 million, but slash other programs that charters benefit from, such as $1 billion in funding for after-school programs and $2.4 billion in money for teacher quality.

DeVos encouraged the charter community to see the proposal as an investment in parents' right to decide what's best for their child's education.

"While some of you have criticized the President's budget—which you have every right to do—it's important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States," DeVos said. "This administration has sent a clear message: We trust parents, and we believe in students. We will fight for every parent and every child, especially those who for too long have been forgotten."

About half the audience gave DeVos a standing ovation when her remarks concluded. 

But some teachers clearly weren't convinced by her sales pitch. 

"If you don't work with kids every day, you don't know what kind of pain" the cuts and policies proposed by the Trump administration can cause, said Chris Baehrend, who teaches at Latino Youth High School, a charter school in Chicago, and is a member of the American Federation of Teachers.

Other unionized charter teachers, including Kayla Meadows, a kindergarten teacher at River Oak Charter School in Northern California, worry that DeVos' policies will lead to lax standards for charter schools, which, they say, isn't ultimately good for kids.

What's more, they say that throwing "vouchers in the mix" will only complicate accountability problems.  

But Louisa Sailor, who teaches 4th grade math and science at a charter school in downtown Cincinatti, had warm words for the secretary, who she sees as a longtime advocate for charters.

"The work that we've done throughout the country has just been incredible," she said. And it doesn't bother Sailor that DeVos doesn't have hands-on teaching experience—in fact she thinks it helps her to bring a set of fresh eyes to the problems facing the nation's schools.

"As teachers we sometimes marginalize ourselves, thinking we are the only people ones who have knowledge," she said.

Other tidbits: In a question-and-answer session with Darrell Bradford, the executive vice president of the state advocacy group 50CAN, DeVos said that, since becoming secretary, she's learned that there's more bureaucracy at the federal level than she thought.

"I have learned that there's a lot of red tape. And there's even more than I feared," she said. "And I think the big lesson for me is be very careful about what you want the federal government to do because even with the best of intentions, everything the federal government begins ultimately becomes more cumbersome, and more belabored and more complicated."

She cited the example of applications for the Upward Bound, a college access program, that she said were rejected for not using the proper spacing.  

And DeVos told Bradford that she doesn't necessarily think that Congress should reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Instead, she's encouraging lawmakers to think afresh about how they approach postsecondary policy. That's a line she's used in speeches before. So far, there hasn't been much reaction from Congress on the idea. 

Want more on DeVos and the rifts the Trump administration has caused in the charter community? Check out this story, by my colleague Arianna Prothero


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