In a speech to over 4,000 charter school educators and advocates, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised their work, but in the same breath leveled sharp criticisms at the charter school movement.
Speaking Monday to the annual convention of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C., she said a quarter century ago, when charter schools were getting off the ground, charter school leaders embraced “creativity, innovation and flexibility.”
But along the way, she said, the movement has departed from some of its founding principles.
“Somewhere along the way, in the intervening 26 years and through the process of expansion, we’ve taken the colorful collage of charters and drawn our own set of lines around it to box others out, to mitigate risk, to play it safe,” she said. “This is not what we set out to do, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help kids.”
“Charters’ success should be celebrated, but it’s equally important not to ‘become the man,'” she said. “I thought it was a tough but fair criticism when a friend recently wrote in an article that many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats – a new education establishment.”
The label of the “education establishment” has typically been used by “school choice” advocates like DeVos to describe teachers unions and other public school leaders who have not fully embraced charter schools, or in DeVos’ case, private school vouchers that have been her passion for several decades.
It was not clear what DeVos was referring to when she said the charter school movement had “boxed others out.” It is possible she was referring to charter school advocates who have gotten into divisive battles with traditional public schools. But it is more likely she was referring to the criticism leveled by some charter advocates, in particular those with Democratic Party affiliations, who have embraced her support of charter schools, but have rejected her promotion of taxpayer subsidies for tuition in private and religious schools.
Her comments underscored the fissures in the “school choice” movement that have become more evident since last November’s elections. For example, Los Angeles billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, one of the most prominent charter backers in the nation, criticized DeVos for what he said was her support for “unregulated charter schools and vouchers.” The California Charter Schools Association, while welcoming her selection to be secretary last November, earlier this year pledged to “actively resist” if private school vouchers were “forced on the state.”
In her remarks, DeVos criticized the bureaucratic hoops that charter schools have to jump through to get their charter authorizations. “We don’t need 500-page charter school applications. That’s not progress. That’s fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.”
“We must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child,” she said. “For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public school works for them.”
DeVos said providing parents “the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs” is a “basic human right.” Denying them that freedom, she said, “is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.”
DeVos also fiercely defended Trump’s education budget proposals, which include slashing federal education funding by some $9 billion, while boosting funding for Trump’s “school choice” agenda.
“While some of you have criticized the president’s budget – which you have every right to do – it’s important to remember that our budget proposal supports the greatest expansion of public school choice in the history of the United States,” she said. “It significantly increases support for the Charter School Program, and adds an additional $1 billion for public school choice for states that choose to adopt it.”
DeVos, however, did not address the difficulties Trump will face getting his proposed budget approved by Congress, despite both chambers being controlled by the Republican Party, and the likelihood that the administration’s sketchily drawn $1 blllion “school choice” plan will run into resistance from most Democrats and some Republicans.