When news broke that President-elect Trump tapped school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary, New York City’s charter school sector was relatively quiet. With the exception of Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who tweeted she was “thrilled,” local charter school leaders and advocates have mostly kept to themselves.
That might seem surprising in a city where more than 100,000 students are educated in charter schools. But DeVos’ brand of school choice, which has so far has focused on fighting for private school vouchers and less charter oversight, is very different from the type than exists in New York City — and some local charter leaders appear wary of it.
“I think a great many charter supporters, and indeed charter founders, are deeply troubled by the idea of vouchers,” said Steve Wilson, CEO of the New York-based Ascend charter school network. “I would venture most charter school founders are liberal Democrats who are committed to social justice and would be very troubled by free market mechanisms.”
The distinction between charter schools and vouchers is key for Wilson. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run institutions. Vouchers, which can fund private schools, are much more radical, Wilson said, and lumping the two together does a disservice to charter schools.
“I would say that education choice is a double-edged sword,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link, a charter elementary school. “We as the charter school sector and the education community need to understand the damage that choice can cause.”
Evangelista and others in the sector also disagree with DeVos’ apparent stance on charter school regulation, which she fought in her home state of Michigan.
James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, did not comment publicly on DeVos, but he wrote an op-ed after Trump’s election on the importance of maintaining strong charter school oversight, instead of “simply growing the sector for growth’s sake.”
“A high-quality charter school sector is only possible when sound policy takes precedence over ideology,” Merriman wrote. “The bedrock of chartering isn’t that the marketplace or even choice will make good schools, as some Republicans, perhaps Trump included, seem to think.”
The DeVos family poured over a million dollars into legislative races when lawmakers were considering more charter school oversight in Detroit. Her work drew criticism for creating a “Wild West” policy environment and allowing failing charters to survive.
The charter sector in Michigan, which has an unprecedented number of for-profit charter schools, looks nothing like the sector in New York. In Michigan, there are many charter-school authorizers, some of which are strict while others are more lax, said Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative-learning Thomas Fordham Institute.
“There is a sense that in Detroit, nobody is in charge,” Petrilli said. That contrasts with New York, which has a small number of authorizers focused on school quality, he said.
Having a school-choice advocate associated with Trump also puts New York City’s sector in a bind. Particularly in the wake of the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, some in the sector are trying to win progressive support, rather than squander it.
New York City’s charter schools serve many low-income students of color, some of whom feel anxious and angry about the rhetoric Trump used during his campaign. Eva Moskowitz’s pledge to support Trump’s education efforts drew protesters outside her Harlem home.
“Some of it is probably guilt by association,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “You still have a president-elect who is viewed by many as having egged on and promoted racist and otherwise offensive points of view among his supporters.”
Still, some national and regional charter school groups have expressed support for DeVos. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sent a congratulatory release, and Andrea Rogers, New York state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, sent a statement saying she is “glad to see another charter supporter take the reins.”
But for most local organizations and schools, there seems to be little upside in embracing her. While the federal government can incentivize policy decisions, as it did with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, most important charter school decisions are decided at the state level. And since some charter schools receive grant money from the federal government, they may have an added incentive to steer clear of messy political arguments. If charter schools stay quiet now, they may benefit later, said Halley Potter, a researcher at the Century Foundation.
“There might be some political savviness right now to just holding back and preserving a place as a potential third way when big battles arise over school choice and privatization,” Potter said. “It could turn out that the big third way could be charter schools as way of expanding school choice.”