Weighing in

Tennessee teachers group cautions Alexander about Trump’s pick for ed chief

PHOTO: Courtesy betsydevos.com
Betsy DeVos of Michigan has helped shape her state's schools through advocacy and philanthropy and is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. secretary of education.

Tennessee’s second-largest teacher organization wants U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to hear teachers’ reservations about Betsy DeVos before voting whether to confirm her as the nation’s education chief.

In a letter to the Tennessee Republican released Wednesday, the leader of the Professional Educators of Tennessee questioned President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education due to her avid support for school vouchers and lack of experience in public schools.

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PHOTO: ProEdTN.org
J.C. Bowman

“Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware,” writes executive director J.C. Bowman on behalf of the group’s 8,000 members.

Bowman said DeVos’ advocacy of using taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition may “well cloud her desired support of public schools.”

“We must focus on making our public schools successful,” Bowman writes. “…Choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.”

Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Alexander already has promised to ensure DeVos’ “swift nomination.”

DeVos, a Republican billionaire from Michigan, has never worked in public schools, but she and her husband, Dick, have been long-time advocates and philanthropists in support of school choice policies. Groups that receive funding from her have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Tennessee legislative races in the state’s ongoing tug-of-war over vouchers.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Alexander is a prominent voice on national education policy. A former governor of Tennessee and education chief under President George H.W. Bush, he has served in the Senate since 2003, and co-sponsored the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Alexander was quick to laud Trump’s selection of DeVos last month, calling her an “excellent choice.”

Bowman’s letter is significant because the Professional Educators of Tennessee strives to distance itself from either major party’s political agenda and does not spend money on political campaigns, though Bowman previously worked with Republican lawmakers in other states, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. By contrast, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization, often aligns itself with Democratic lawmakers.

TEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, has released a statement expressing similar reservations about DeVos, while national education groups that favor tuition vouchers have heaped praise on Trump’s choice. TEA also urged its members on Facebook to sign an open letter from NEA and the American Federation of Teachers expressing concerns about DeVos. 

Discussion on DeVos’ nomination among Tennessee’s education community has been confined mostly to social media, with few groups speaking out either in support or against Trump’s pick.

Here is Bowman’s letter in full:

Dear Senator Alexander,

Thank you for your continued leadership as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act. A strong public education system is a key to our democracy, a foundation to build our economy, and the means by which we can help all Tennessee children achieve their dreams.

Professional Educators of Tennessee is the fastest growing teacher association in our state. We are non-partisan and our organization is unaffiliated with the national teacher unions. Not all educators are members of the NEA or AFT. In fact, there are more educators that are members of independent education associations than the AFT. We are completely funded by the dues of our members. Our members are educators from the state of Tennessee. We do not endorse political candidates, or use their members’ dues to fund political candidates.

I have worked with you previously on numerous occasions from American Legion Boy’s State as a teenager, to various political endeavors, and to address numerous public education challenges within the state of Tennessee. Today, I am writing to share our organization’s reservations in regards to the nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos for the position as Secretary of Education.

There are two issues of immediate concern for our members. The first is that Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

The second issue, her advocacy of vouchers funded through the use of public tax dollars, may well cloud her desired support of public schools. Vouchers are not a magic bullet, and may do little to improve the quality of public schools. Vouchers are also not a solution to problems in urban cities. These cities face societal challenges well beyond the classroom door. Most communities lack the number of high quality private schools to meet any real demand created by vouchers. It is clear that for now and the foreseeable future, a vast majority of children will be educated by public schools. We must focus on making our public schools successful. Therefore, choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.

I appreciate your strong support of students, educators, and public education in Tennessee, especially your commitment to local control of public education. We encourage Ms. DeVos to go out and visit our public schools and see the incredible things that educators are doing every day across our state and nation. We think she would be amazed. We welcome a dialogue with Ms. DeVos and yourself to address our concerns and invite you both to talk directly to our members to assure them that as Secretary of Education she will support the mission of public schools and has the necessary experience in improving them.

Warmest Regards,

JC Bowman, Ph.D

Executive Director

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.