Healthy Debate in Ed Reform Greets Potential New Secretary
February 3, 2017

The organizations that work regularly together through the PIE Network are united by shared beliefs about the power of public education and how to improve it, including strong commitments to accountability, educator excellence, and quality charter schools. However, we’re far from like-minded on every issue; in fact, regular and respectful discussion of tough issues that span the ideological spectrum is one of the great strengths of the Network.

Sustaining Network connections across so many organizations and states requires not only shared goals; it also means knowing where advocates agree to disagree, yet remain connected to work together where interests align. One of those issues is school choice. Charters and choice remain a consistent top priority in the Network. For some, that commitment extends to charters and similar innovations within the public school system, while others support a broader range of choices, including opportunity scholarships, tax credits, and other tools that extend schooling options.

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for U.S. Secretary of Education, is such an advocate: a passionate believer in all forms of choice. Like many of the President’s nominees, she’s an unconventional candidate. It’s not surprising, then, that passions and opinions differ within the Network about her candidacy, including, though not limited to, her views on choice. Statements by a few PIE Network members and partners are excerpted below.

It’s also important to recognize that many organizations in the Network choose not to weigh in on the merits of political candidates at the national level or in their states (though they do often weigh in on policy issues). That’s a strategic move, believing that leaves them best poised to work with whomever lands the job—which is their job. And even for those who do weigh in, “never friends, never enemies…” remains a guiding principle for many advocates. It’s the nature of advocacy to put the fight behind us once the votes are cast.

By the time some will read this, the votes indeed may be in. Below are views from a few PIE Network members on this historic debate. First, you can read the Secretary Designate’s own words here and here on many of the topics under discussion.

Views from the Network

Many education reformers have banded together in their support for DeVos, “a champion for students.” In an open letter two dozen individuals and more than 50 organizations—including Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri and Educate Nebraska, as well as the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Foundation for Excellence in Education, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute—lauded DeVos’ nomination as an opportunity to embrace a fresh approach to education: “Betsy DeVos is an undisputed champion of families and students. For nearly 30 years she has devoted time and resources to improving education options for our nation’s children. Yet millions still languish in failing schools in an education system more than a century old. It’s time for a new vision.”

Some advocates, including several Network members, signed on to a statement of concern, organized by the Center for American Progress and including 38 different organizations. The letter questioned DeVos’ donor record and possible impact on our most vulnerable children.

Kati Haycock, the CEO of The Education Trust, also challenged DeVos’ nomination in a press release, emphasizing that the country needs more than a one-size-fits all approach: “If America’s young people are to be fully prepared for the challenges of work and citizenship in the 21st century, the nation needs a comprehensive improvement plan that will tackle longtime disparities in school quality and raise results for all of our young people. But DeVos offered only a single proposal: expanding parental choice. This is a strategy that… isn’t a viable option everywhere.”

On The 74, Derrell Bradford, the executive director of NYCAN and vocal supporter of DeVos’ nomination, urged charter school advocates to examine the larger argument around school choice. “The simple truth is that the only people having a ‘good choice’ versus ‘bad choice’ fight right now are charter advocates. And ironically this good/bad distinction isn’t about quality of choice…; it’s singularly about the type of choice.” Bradford goes on to highlight private and charter school coalitions “making great strides politically in places like New York where there is an understanding that the enemies of choice are common enemies across both sectors.”

In a recent Education Gadly post, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argued that concerns about where DeVos attended school or sent her children aren’t relevant: “Betsy DeVos’ ability to fulfill the obligations of the role of secretary of education does not rest on the name of her high school alma mater or that of her children. It rests far more on her ability to understand the innate desire for so many parents to choose the best school for their child—and for that school to be really good, not just compared to the school down the street, but compared to the best school in the state.”

Educators for Excellence argues that DeVos has work to do to build her credibility among teachers. A statement on the organization’s website reads: “Teachers want to hear from our potential secretary of education a clear vision and plan for how to make our schools more equitable and excellent,” Evan Stone, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Educators for Excellence said. While the group doesn’t support or oppose candidates, they work to amplify their member voices, 91 percent of whom say they oppose this nomination in a recent survey.

While Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), has been a vocal opponent of DeVos, DFER President Shavar Jeffries posed a bigger question in the title of a blog post on Thursday that suggests he looks forward to finding common ground across the ideological spectrum: “After DeVos: Can education policy return to its bipartisan roots?”

Jeffries reflects on the historic “strong bipartisan consensus that wedded choice, innovation and accountability.” He wrote, “This [bipartisan] consensus recognized greater parental choice and brought external pressure on bureaucracies that had increasingly grown stale and incompetent in meeting student needs. But it also understood that choice and innovation are only as sound as their capacity to realize the gains in student achievement that justify public investments in the first place, so a parallel commitment to accountability has also been a hallmark of modern reform efforts…If we want public education to work for all kids, we need to build upon the bipartisan consensus that’s changed outcomes for the better.”

While opinions across the Network vary, one thing is clear—rarely has the role of secretary drawn so much national attention. One benefit: it provides state reform champions an opportunity to engage their communities on issues of accountability, charters, and school choice, as well as the relative impact of the federal role on local schools.

Find more on the details of the debate: here and here. And here’s more data about Betsy DeVos’ record in Michigan.

 

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Suzanne Tacheny Kubach

Suzanne is PIE Network's founder and former Executive Director


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