devos on denver

Weeks after DeVos praises school choice efforts in Denver, she slams the city as offering ‘accessibility without choices’

Earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was praising Denver’s efforts to support school choice. Not today.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution Wednesday, she called out Denver as an example of a district that appears to be choice-friendly — but actually lacks sufficient options for families.

A new Brookings report gave the city the top score for school choice, citing the unified application process that allows families to consider charter and district-run schools at the same time.

But DeVos implied that without vouchers to pay for private schools (something Colorado’s state Supreme Court has twice ruled unconstitutional) and a sufficient supply of charter schools, Denver’s application process amounts to an optical illusion.

“The benefits of making choices accessible are canceled out when you don’t have a full menu of options,” she said, pointing to New Orleans as a better example of the choice ecosystem she’d like to see. “Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter. Just like accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.”

The harsh criticism comes just weeks after DeVos publicly praised Denver’s efforts to solve a thorny challenge complicating school choice across the country: transportation. In a speech to the Council of Great City Schools, a group of leaders and school board members of America’s large school districts, she praised the “Success Express” that shuttles students in a handful of neighborhoods to both charter and district schools. But transportation challenges continue to prevent families from taking advantage of the options that do exist.

Denver Public Schools’ Superintendent Tom Boasberg released the following statement responding to DeVos’s comments:

“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.”

Here are DeVos’s full comments about Denver’s top school choice ranking in the Brookings report:

“I am hopeful this report helps lights 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 As. 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, there is a good supply of affordable private schools, and the state provides vouchers for 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 of 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 there.”

choice challenge

A Betsy DeVos-approved tax change is meant to make private school more affordable. Here’s why it might not work

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The just-passed tax law includes a big perk for families who send their children to private school: the ability to use certain tax-advantaged savings accounts, which until now could only be used to save for higher education, to pay for K-12 school, too.

That’s led to criticism from those who note that the wealthy stand to benefit the most and that local public school budgets could take a hit, and support from school choice advocates like Betsy DeVos, who argue it will expand access to private schools.

But there’s reason to believe that the move won’t make private school feasible for any more families — and that private schools are likely to raise tuition in response.

Here’s why: All families are eligible to use the saving accounts, known as 529s. That means unlike a lot of state programs that offer private school vouchers or tax credits, the 529s aren’t targeted at poor students, those with a disability, or other specific groups.

In a peer-reviewed 2016 study, researchers compared the effects of these two types of choice programs: those that are restricted to certain populations and those available to all. The latter group — that is, programs like 529s — didn’t lead to any increase in students attending private school, but did cause a sharp hike in school tuition.

This suggests these programs don’t function the way some advocates want them to. Instead of adding choices for families, they offer a windfall to schools. (Keep in mind that students could still benefit if private schools use that extra money to improve the quality of education they offer.)

There is one important reason why private schools may not react to this change in the same way. Although all families will technically be able to use the new 529 rules to save for private school, in practice, only families with enough money to put extra into one of the accounts will be able to participate. In that sense, it could function more like a targeted program, and those have been found to boost private school attendance.

In praising the initiative on Tuesday, DeVos acknowledged the fact that the program is unlikely to benefit poor families.

“Anything that empowers parents and gives them more opportunities for their students is a good thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t address the needs of parents who are from lower incomes and doesn’t empower them in significant ways.”

devos watch

Four takeaways from Betsy DeVos’s summit on innovation in K-12 education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this month. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos used her bully pulpit on Tuesday to again call for more school innovation, especially technology-infused “personalized learning.”

“Washington, D.C. does not have all the answers,” DeVos said at the Department of Education’s K-12 focused “Rethink Schools Summit.” “But government can be good at bringing people together to highlight their creative thinking and new approaches.”

It’s a familiar tactic for DeVos, who has been largely stymied in pushing school choice policies but has repeatedly put the spotlight on specific schools she finds innovative. Charter and private schools were well represented at the Tuesday meeting, which also included a number of district leaders and an array of others, including arts-education, homeschooling, and community-schools advocates.

Here are a few takeaways from the event:

Generalities outnumbered policy specifics.

There appeared to be broad agreement in the room on several general notions: Teachers are important, technology needs to be used, but used wisely, and schools must change to prepare students for a changing world.

“Technology is the not the answer,” said Tom Rooney, the superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District in California that has embraced a tech-infused approach that he calls customized learning. It’s “about using technology in transformational way to accelerate the learning.”

Rooney pointed to an effort to expand wireless Internet throughout the community, and to schools that group students by performance levels, rather than age or grade.

But DeVos’s request for participants describe “where impediments at any level of government are preventing you from achieving your mission” went largely unheeded. Two exceptions were concerns raised about state testing requirements and teacher certification rules.

Personalized learning was front and center, dovetailing with the goals of some big philanthropists.

The theme of the day was the notion of tailoring teaching to individual students — alternatively called personalized, customized, or student-centered learning.

This approach aligns with the agendas of several influential education foundations, namely the Emerson Collective, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. (Emerson and Gates are both funders of Chalkbeat.)

Among the speakers was Diane Tavenner, the founder of Summit, a charter school network that also provides software to district schools to support tech-based personalized learning. Summit has been supported by the Gates Foundation, won an XQ prize from the Emerson Collective, and is backed by Chan-Zuckerberg.

Mark Zuckerberg specifically mentioned the group in a recent post describing his approach to charitable giving. “Our partnership with Summit Public Schools has helped encode their teaching philosophy in tools that will be used in more than 300 district, charter, and private schools this fall,” he wrote.

The leader of the Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, which also won a $10 million XQ prize, was present, as was a representative of Leap Innovations, a nonprofit group that consults on personalized learning and has been praised by Bill Gates and Jim Shelton of Chan-Zuckerberg.

Some notable players weren’t present: prominent charters and virtual schools.

Those not at the summit included fully virtual charter school operators — like K12 or Connections Academy — who DeVos and some other school choice advocates have praised as innovative, but that research has found lead to large drops in student achievement.

Also missing: high-profile “no-excuses” charter networks, such as Achievement First, KIPP, or Success Academy, which have posted consistently high test scores.

There were bold claims of success, but little new evidence.

DeVos and other participants appeared confident that their focus on personalized learning will succeed, despite the limited evidence to date. Participants made big assertions, including district leaders saying that test scores and graduation rates had improved after moving to a different approach. But it’s difficult to say whether a more personalized approach deserves credit for these gains, and there was little reference to research evidence throughout the conference.

Summit, for instance, has not been the subject of much rigorous external study. The closest may be a recent report by Stanford’s CREDO, which only examined about 400 students in the Summit network. It found the schools had no statistically significant effect on reading test scores and small negative impacts in math. Summit has produced an internal analysis showing that students using its software made faster than average growth on a national test.

In general, personalized learning advocates highlight older research on the benefits of one-on-one tutoring, studies finding that specific math-focused computer programs can lead to gains, and a RAND report pointing to gains in schools that have adopted personalized learning. The RAND researchers, though, have urged caution.

“I worry that the positive results that have come out of our studies are generating a bit too much enthusiasm,” RAND researcher John Pane told Education Week in November. “I think people see the headlines, but they don’t see the limitations of the research that’s happened so far.”

Here’s the full list of participants:

  • Mashea Ashton of Digital Pioneers Academy
  • Nicole Assisi of Thrive Charter Schools
  • Carol Becker of Homeschool Cooperative
  • Beth Blaufuss of Archbishop Carroll High School
  • Michael Bolling of CodeRVA
  • Patricia Brantley of Friendship Public Charter Schools
  • Jean-Paul Cadet of Prince George’s County Public Schools
  • Heather Clawson of Communities in Schools
  • Elizabeth Goettl of Cristo Rey Network
  • Kamal Hamdan of California State University and STEM Lab School
  • Christopher Hanks of Grand Rapids Public Museum School
  • Andrew Hart of The Oaks Academy
  • Chris Liang-Vergara of Leap Innovations
  • Stephen Mauney of Mooresville Graded School District
  • Carol Morgan of ArtsConnection
  • Tom Rooney of Lindsay Unified School District
  • Vielka Scott-Marcus of Friendship Public Charter Schools
  • John Swoyer III of MaST Community Charter School
  • Diane Tavenner of Summit Learning
  • Ken Wagner of Rhode Island Department of Education
  • Travis Works of Cornville Regional Charter School
  • Doug Wright of Carroll County Schools