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Betsy DeVos Speaks to Charter School Advocates: What to Watch For

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will address the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools annual convention Tuesday. It may not be as comfortable a venue for her as it sounds.

There are some serious rifts in the charter community when it comes to how to react to President Donald Trump, DeVos, and their gung-ho school choice agenda, as my colleague Arianna Prothero wrote in this story last year.

The basic background: The Trump administration's embrace of school choice—including charters—has put the charter community in a tough spot. On the one hand, charter advocates, who were pushing the administration to bolster funding for charter schools to $1 billion have to be happy about the president's proposal to hike charter school funding by $167 million, to $500 million.

But the rest of the budget is tough to swallow. Charter schools, just like traditional public schools take advantage of many of the same programs that Trump wants to cut in his budget in order to boost funding for choice, including grants for teacher quality and afterschool programs

What's more, Trump's charter-friendly policies come at an awkward time for the sector, which has been struggling with criticism from some in the black community.  Last year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, called for a moratorium on new charter schools. The organization says that charters often cherry pick the best students, disproportionately discipline children of color, and steer critical tax dollars away from traditional public schools.

Cozying up to the Trump administration—which has drawn widespread criticism from the civil rights community for everything from the travel ban to the choice of Jeff Sessions as attorney general—could hurt charters with a key constituency. Nationally, black students make up 28 percent of charter school enrollment, compared to only 15 percent of noncharter enrollment, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center of federal data from the 2012-13 school year.

And the president isn't popular in the African-American community. He won just 8 percent of the black vote, compared with 88 percent for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, according to the Pew Research Center.

Charter advocates are painfully aware of this. In fact, Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, told Arianna that she thinks that teachers' unions, who tend to be skeptical of charter schools, are trying to leverage Trump's unpopularity with Democrats and communities of color by tying charters to the Trump administration.

"[T]here is definitely the push by the unions to conflate charters with choice, and broader plans to expand choice," Rees said last month. "I don't know how consistently they're going after that, but definitely the embrace of the Trump administration of charters, is something the other side is trying to leverage."

Charter-friendly Democratic organizations, including Democrats for Education Reform, have urged their allies not to work with the administration. And Eli Broad, a philanthropist who has funneled millions to charter schools, came out against DeVos' nomination to head the department. So did the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association, which worried that policies backed by by an organization DeVos funded in Michigan led to the proliferation of low-performing charter schools.

All that will be in the background when DeVos steps on stage to address the nation's biggest charter group tomorrow. Bonus: She'll be taking audience questions. 


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