madame secretary

Betsy DeVos is coming to Denver for a meeting of the conservative group ALEC — and protesters are ready

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos is scheduled this month to make her first visit to Tennessee as U.S. secretary of education.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak in Denver next week at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that has successfully advocated for free-market principles at statehouses across the country.

While DeVos will find a friendly audience at ALEC, she’ll get a different greeting from liberal activists and union leaders who are seizing on the chance to protest DeVos’s agenda.

This is DeVos’s first visit to Colorado since the billionaire philanthropist and school choice advocate was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s pick for the nation’s top education job.

DeVos has close ties to ALEC. She is the founder of the American Federation for Children, which provides financial support to ALEC and has representation on ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force.

ALEC is best known for crafting “model” legislation advancing conservative principles on issues ranging from tax limitations to gun safety and the environment. Its membership includes corporations and nearly 2,000 state legislators across the country.

DeVos shares ALEC’s support for charter schools and the use of tax dollars to pay for private school education through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts.

As of Thursday, DeVos’s appearance was not listed on the meeting’s online agenda. An ALEC spokeswoman confirmed DeVos will appear, but said details including the timing still were being worked out. The group’s meeting runs Wednesday through Friday.

Inez Feltscher Stepman, director of ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force, lauded DeVos’s support for school choice and for making clear that decision-making about education should be invested in states.

“It’s really encouraging to hear (states) should have the primary responsibility for crafting their education systems, and should be the leaders in education reform and opportunity,” she said.

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman did not respond to questions this week about whether DeVos has any other stops or appearances planned during her Colorado trip.

The secretary has a standing invitation from Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado to visit Denver Public Schools and get a window into the district’s brand of school choice.

DeVos has been critical of DPS, implying that its choices are lacking because students can’t use private school vouchers or don’t have enough charter schools from which to choose.

Bennet, a former DPS superintendent, fired back, saying DeVos was wrong. In a later interview with Chalkbeat, he called her an ideologue who is not the face of education reform.

A DPS spokesman said Thursday a member of DeVos’s team contacted the district to ask about learning more about its efforts to serve students learning English. Approximately 37 percent of Denver’s 92,000 students are English language learners. The spokesman said the district is working to connect the DeVos team member with DPS’s experts, but “there are no plans in place right now.”

A “Denver RESISTS DeVos” protest, meanwhile, is planned for 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday outside the state Capitol involving multiple groups. The protest is being promoted on a Facebook page hosted by Tay Anderson, a 2017 Manual High School graduate who is running for a Denver school board seat. It’s part of a broader “ALEC resistance” effort that includes a “teach-in.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is planning to make signs that morning, take part in the protest and then march to the ALEC meeting at a downtown hotel, according to its Facebook event page.

John Ford, president of Jefferson County Education Association and a scheduled speaker at Wednesday’s protest, said in a statement via email that “voucher schemes and other failed reforms” DeVos will promote are not welcome in Colorado.

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.