Our Schools

Betsy DeVos is out — but her right-wing agenda lives on

Supporters of public education and school teachers were relieved to see Betsy DeVos leave her job as head of the Department of Education, knowing full well the education policies she and former President Trump supported would go nowhere in a President Biden administration. But they should remain incensed over how her efforts to privatize public schools are being rolled out in state legislatures across the country.

In states as politically diverse as Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, and New Hampshire, state legislators are introducing bills to increase the number of charter schools and create new school voucher programs or greatly expand current ones. According to the Educational Freedom Institute (EFI), a think tank that advocates for vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of "school choice," there are at least 14 states actively considering legislation to pour greater sums of taxpayer dollars intended for public education into privately operated schools. Many of the bills have been introduced since the November 2020 elections, which ousted Trump and DeVos but resulted in big gains for Republicans down-ticket.

These proposals to privatize public schools are taking on new forms that are less transparent, would be easier to pass through legislation, and take larger sums of money from public schools, which educate between 80 and 90 percent of American children. Further, the bills are surfacing when public education is highly vulnerable due to the pandemic and the ensuing economic havoc it is wreaking.

Package Bills Pushing Privatization

In Florida, Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana, lawmakers are considering new bills that condense various "school choice" proposals into a "package" of legislation that can be passed with one vote rather than be subjected to public scrutiny one proposal at a time.

In Florida, Republican legislators have proposed a bill, SB 48, that would expand the state's school voucher programs, the Orlando Sentinel reports, and "spend more money on them." Among the many proposals in the bill is to combine the state's five voucher programs under a single taxpayer-funded source that the Miami Herald describes as "the holy grail in the school-choice movement."

Funding for Florida vouchers, often called "scholarships," has come via a program that rewards tax credits to corporations and individuals who donate to a scholarship agency. Under the provisions in SB 48, funding would instead come from government-established educational savings accounts (ESAs) for families to use to pay for educational expenses.

During her tenure as secretary, DeVos repeatedly included a proposal for a federal ESA program in her annual budget, and she advocated for the federal government to create an ESA program for military families. ESAs are popular with school choice proponents because they expand the range of education services that can be purchased with public funds, from private school tuition to tutoring, digital devices, and internet access.

The Florida bill also proposes to expand the number of families who can take advantage of the voucher program. Among those who would become newly eligible, the Florida School Boards Association notes, are students who are already enrolled in private schools or who are homeschooled. In other words, families who are already opting out of public school would now receive a subsidy from the taxpayers to continue to do so.

Another proposal in the Florida bill would make the voucher program less accountable by decreasing the frequency of required program audits from annual to once every three years. ESA programs, however, are in need of even more stringent oversight. A 2018 state audit of Arizona's ESA program found parents used their debit cards to make "fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated" by the program, according to the Arizona Republic.

A new bill up for consideration in Missouri calls for a similar "package" of school choice measures, the Missouri Times reports.

The bill, SB 55, originated as a proposal to make public school districts allow homeschooled students to participate, free of charge, in after-school sports and activities. But as the bill made its way through committee, it was loaded with "provisions hostile to public education that have never even had a public hearing," according to an alert sent out by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public school advocacy nonprofit organization.

Included in the bill is a proposal to allow new charter schools, which were originally confined to just St. Louis and a district in Kansas City, to start up in any municipality with a population above 30,000. Another provision added to the bill would establish a tax credit program, similar to the one in Florida, that allows donors to take a tax credit for their contributions, which are then issued to eligible parents to pay for private school tuition, virtual schooling, or homeschooling.

The bill also levels a broadside at state and local school boards by limiting state board members to one term only and by requiring a recall election for any local school board member when a petition campaign generates the number of signatures that equals at least 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the last school board election—a ridiculously low threshold since school board elections generally have very low turnout.

In Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds is behind a multipronged privatization effort to create a school voucher program, establish an independent charter school organization to increase new charter startups (the state currently has only two charters), and allow students to transfer out of public schools that have voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans.

The bill, introduced as Senate Study Bill 1065 but now known as SF 159, according to the Network for Public Education, "is being fast-tracked through the state Senate."

Republican state lawmakers are denying the bill is being fast-tracked, according to the Gazette, but the newspaper's reporter notes the legislature made "some unusual procedural moves… to keep the proposal moving forward."

Should the bill pass, "it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private," Iowa Senator Pam Jochum told the Gazette.

In Indiana, the bill Republicans are pushing expands the state's current voucher program, one of the largest in the country, and creates a new ESA program, Chalkbeat reports.

The Bill, HB 1005, would expand vouchers to wealthier families earning up to about $145,000 per year, nearly double the state's median family income of $74,000, resulting in a 40 percent increase in the number of voucher-funded students.

The voucher program, which "cost the state about $173 million last school year," according to Chalkbeat, will add "more than $100 million" to the cost of vouchers in its first year alone. The bill's provision for a new ESA program is the "most costly element" of the bill, says Chalkbeat, because "[t]he program would be more generous than vouchers."

This Is Not What People Want

What's telling about these bills is that proponents of school privatization clearly see the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion is not necessarily on their side.

Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly. In 2016, a ballot referendum to expand charter schools in Massachusetts was soundly defeated. The same year in Georgia, a ballot initiative to turn low-performing public schools over to charter management companies was defeated decisively. And a 2018 effort to expand eligibility for Arizona's voucher program lost at the ballot box.

Vouchers and charter schools also don't register as big winners in surveys of public opinion.

According to a 2020 poll by Education Next, an organization that advocates for charters and vouchers, "Support for school-choice reforms either holds steady or declines modestly since last year." The poll found that tax credit programs like the ones proposed in Missouri and Iowa are favored by 59 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats, but it's really hard to believe that most people understand these obscure programs and their consequences. Also, charter schools have become highly divisive along party lines, with 54 percent of Republicans supporting them and only 37 percent of Democrats feeling likewise.

What's also significant about these new school choice initiatives is that Republicans are seeing them as leverage to push through other unpopular measures—in the case of Missouri, to undermine the popular vote and the democratic process used to elect school board members, and in Iowa, to attack racial integration, to undermine the rights of students and families of color, and to continue the dominance of white Western thought in school curricula.

Taking Advantage of a Crisis

School choice proponents also see the crisis caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.

Many parents are beyond distraught with their children's situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which is most of America, state and local governments have generally not invested in the personnel and resources that are essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning.

Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom are also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, see this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools.

Governor Reynolds, in her 2021 Condition of the State speech to the Iowa legislature, declared, "If there's one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it's that our parents need choice. And it's not just in-person versus virtual. Sometimes it's about which school to attend altogether."

That theme is prevalent throughout the right-wing and school choice echo chambers—whose funders generally overlap—from local newspapers, to nationwide campaigns, to mainstream media.

It's true the pandemic is driving great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.

And in some states, the playing field is being tilted to favor non-public schools.

For instance, when private schools in Ohio sued to be exempt from closure mandates issued by local health departments, a federal court agreed. The ruling came at the same time Ohio private schools were getting an enrollment boost where local schools stayed remote.

In North Carolina, when the state announced its pilot program for giving rapid antigen tests to schools, the list included 11 charter schools, and in three of the state's largest school districts—Mecklenburg, Durham, Forsyth—the only schools getting the tests were charters, reported Carolina Public Press.

A False Choice

But basing broad public policy on the individual choices of some parents during a time of great stress is promulgating a false choice.

Children engaged in face-to-face learning in private and charter schools can still get COVID-19. In North Carolina, figures released by the state health department in November 2020 indicated that outbreaks in private schools made up the majority of school-related COVID-19 clusters in the state.

Also, in most cases, parents switching to charter schools actually reduce their choices by subjecting their children's education to the whims of charter management companies.

Amid spiking infection rates in Florida, a charter school near Jacksonville decided to end parents' option to choose online learning for their children. In New York City, the largest chain of charter schools has chosen to offer online learning only. A nationwide survey conducted for Education Next's journal in November and December 2020 found that 66 percent of students attending charter schools receive remote instruction exclusively, while the percentage of students receiving remote instruction in traditional public schools is less—57 percent.

When school districts make these sorts of decisions, parents can at least voice their opinion at school board meetings, to county commissioners, and with state legislatures. And they do. But parents who enroll in charters, private schools, and other privately run options have no choice other than to leave the school, which, more often than not, is not a practical option, especially in the middle of an academic year.

Would states be ramping up these school privatization efforts had DeVos never set foot in the Department of Education? Probably. But her prominent leadership role and media persona raised public awareness of the well-funded and highly organized effort to privatize public schools and deepened political divisions over charter schools and voucher programs. What Republican state lawmakers are doing with these new legislative efforts will likely worsen those divisions.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

How a fight for an elementary school became a catalyst for positive change

As soon as Anna Grant's busy workday at Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, ended, she would head toward the next school where she was needed. "I would get off work and immediately drive to meetings, press events, whatever we had organized [for the school]," she recalls. Her second school of concern was Lakewood Elementary, where Grant now works. In 2017, Lakewood was a flashpoint of grassroots protest due to a threat by the state to take over the school.

"Roughly 200 protesters, parents and neighborhood residents" rallied at Lakewood Elementary to keep the school out of the state's new Innovative School District (ISD), reported NC Policy Watch, a media project of the North Carolina Justice Center. The ISD was created by the state legislature to take over low-performing schools and transfer governance from the local school board to charter school management companies. Lakewood, along with Glenn Elementary in Durham and three other schools in the state, was on the shortlist of schools at risk of being transferred into the ISD.

"It's a takeover," NC Policy Watch quoted Bryan Proffitt, then-president of the Durham Association of Educators. "I don't intend to allow a terrible legislative idea to ruin our neighborhood school," Durham school board member Matt Sears told a reporter for the Herald-Sun.

Grant now calls the protests "a community effort" that united teachers with parents, community activists, and the Durham school board in an effort to stave off a transfer of school governance from the community to a private organization. The activists formed the group Defend Durham Schools to share research and talking points on state takeovers and started a Facebook page to recruit more community support.

"Our zoned school was Lakewood," recalls Durham parent and current school board member Jovonia Lewis, "and when the state threatened to take over the school using the ISD, I joined a committee that was raising the alarm."

The resistance was successful, as state officials dropped the Durham schools from their list of takeover targets and eventually took over only one school in Robeson County. But today Lakewood remains a much-talked-about school not for resisting the state takeover but for what happened after.

As NC Policy Watch reported in September 2019, after the successful effort to stave off a takeover, Lakewood's performance on the state's annual school report card assessments leaped from a grade of F to a C, and its measures of academic growth improved by 16 percentage points, with grade-level proficiency increasing by 17.6 percentage points.

"For people who believe test scores are accurate reflections of students' academic achievement, and letter grades are valid representations of school performance, Lakewood going from an F-rated school to a C, that never happens," Grant tells me.

"Now I know there are a lot of factors that could be contributing to that improvement," Grant admits, "but had we been taken over by the ISD, that improvement would never have happened."

The conversation that swirled around the takeover threat to Lakewood and how the school eventually turned its performance around is especially important now that many see the disruption that the pandemic has brought upon schools as an opportunity to "restart and reinvent" education.

"I've heard these calls to reimagine education as we come out of the pandemic," says Lewis, "but what does that look like?"

Educators I spoke with in Durham answer that question by explaining a different way to think about school improvement.

Bottom-Up Rather Than Top-Down

"I was shocked that the state would consider a failed reform model that would take control of a Durham school out of our community's hands," Durham school board member Natalie Beyer recalls about her reaction to the threat to take over Lakewood.

The "failed" track record for state takeovers Beyer referred to is well documented in the example of an experiment in Tennessee with a similar approach called an Achievement School District. As the Tennessean reported in 2019, "Six years since it began taking over low-performing schools, new research shows Tennessee's Achievement School District is failing."

New York City public school math teacher Gary Rubinstein has been tracking the progress of Tennessee's experiment over the years and reported in 2020, on his personal blog, that the state program's promise was to take over schools in the bottom 5 percent of the lowest-performing schools, convert them to charter schools, and elevate their performance into the top 25 percent in five years. Of the 30 schools taken over, he writes, "nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that… [rose] into the bottom 10 percent."

The Robeson County school taken over by North Carolina's ISD made scant improvements since it was taken over, NC Policy Watch reported in 2019, making gains in third-grade math only and earning an F rating on its state report card.

"We're willing to innovate locally," Beyer says.

To act on its willingness to innovate, the Durham school board partnered with teachers and local organizations to examine school improvement models being used in communities with similar demographics.

"We studied Cincinnati a lot," Beyer recalls. Cincinnati's record of improving student academic measures had been reported by Greg Anrig, an author and vice president of Washington, D.C., think tank the Century Foundation, in 2013. A 2014 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the district's model of turning schools into "community learning centers" was being hailed as a potential "national model" for urban districts.

Cincinnati schools that had taken up the community learning center model operated as "neighborhood-based 'hub[s],'" according to a 2017 joint report by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center, with schools that had a special coordinator who created partnerships with local agencies and nonprofits to provide a range of academic, health, and social services to students and families.

Cincinnati schools offering these services "had better attendance and showed significant improvements on state graduation tests," according to the joint report, based on the school district's internal analysis.

Durham school board members also listened to local teachers rather than treating them as adversaries and worked with the Durham affiliate of the National Education Association to explore successful approaches that had been used in other urban school districts.

The consensus view that emerged from these discussions was that people wanted schools to serve as neighborhood hubs that serve the multiple needs of families. They also wanted schools, when determining their policies and practices, to be more inclusive of the diverse voices of teachers, parents, students, and community members.

Borrowing from Cincinnati's community learning centers and what the teachers' union called "community schools," Durham gradually put together a school improvement approach that grew from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down.

'What Excites Parents and Teachers'

"The term community schools means literally a million different things depending on where you are," Proffitt, who is now the vice president of the state association of educators, told me in a phone call.

"Community schools is not a program," says Grant. "[It's] about an approach."

These kinds of definitions can seem abstract. But an analogy from former Durham public school music educator Xavier Cason, who is now the district's director of community schools and school transformation, helps clarify.

"Policy demands are only one part of what goes on in schools," he told me in a phone call. "Another important part is what excites parents and teachers and gets them involved. That has nothing to do with test scores."

When he was director of Hillside High School's famed band in Durham, Cason knew he had to prepare his students well enough so they could put on performances at competitions that were clean enough for the judges, but exciting enough for the audience. Now, in his role in school administration, he finds he has to deliver an approach to school that passes muster with policy leaders but also delivers for parents and students.

"Back in 2016, people were saying that schools had to focus mostly on academics," he says. "Now people have come to realize the focus had to be on educating the whole child."

The pandemic has made this change in focus clearer, Cason elaborates, as parents and school leaders have come to realize that in order to get the academic goals they want for students, their schools need to be safe, they need to be fed, and they need access to counselors, nurses, and other support staff.

Building Functioning Democracy

But it would be a mistake to view Durham's model for grassroots school improvement as simply a matter of adding health care and other services, often called "wraparound services."

Formal descriptions of the community schools approach, such as the one offered by the Learning Policy Institute, frequently get into details about multiple components of the model, often called "pillars."

But practitioners of the approach often boil it down to the fundamentals of democracy.

"Every school following the community schools approach is like a micro-experiment in building functioning democracy," says Proffitt. This commitment to democratic governance requires schools to create structures, such as teams or committees, that are representative of the multiple voices that make up the school and that genuinely address problems people care about most.

"As you engage more people in problem-solving," Proffitt says, "you change the culture of the community to be more inclusive of others and more committed to solving inequities."

What does that look like? Grant explains, "[Lakewood] didn't start off with a decision to have a mobile dental clinic. We started off with asking the community what it needed." Eventually the school may indeed decide to start a mobile dental clinic, Grant explains, but the point is to increase engagement and participation.

In another example, Grant explains, the school started using what she calls "family engagement goal teams" to increase interaction between teachers and families. This included home visits at first, but when the pandemic hit, the work shifted to having a weekly phone bank that contacts every family, every week, via phone, text, or other means.

"When we see people participating and proposing solutions we all know need to be addressed, then we know that is the school community model happening," she says.

The emphasis on community engagement and participation creates a sense of cohesion among the community members that make up the school, according to Grant. This greater feeling of belonging to something much bigger than yourself can lead to a heightened concern for those in the community who are struggling, Grant believes, and she points to the fact that when the school sent debit cards to every family during the pandemic, those families who believed they didn't need the cards decided to create and organize a way to redistribute the aid to those families most in need.

"The community schools approach is an attempt to solve problems that have been in the conversation for years," Proffitt says. But it differs drastically in how it aims to solve those problems.

"Take the issue of student suspensions," Proffitt offers. "For years, the district has been struggling with the question, 'Do we suspend too many students? Do we suspend too few?' The community schools approach is a way to get beyond the question of numbers and actually engage in a conversation about how to create a school that gives kids space and grace and opportunities for correcting their behavior."

Classroom teaching also becomes something that has to be responsive to the needs and interests of students rather than a static curriculum. When communities across the country erupted in protests against police violence targeted at Black and Brown citizens, Grant recalls, Lakewood faculty shifted the focus of their routine meetings to talk about integrating the Movement for Black Lives into their teaching and into lessons, and teachers underwent professional development on culturally responsive teaching.

"We understand we need to know what is important in our students' lives and need to make that present in our teaching," Grant says, "and we survey students to ask if they see themselves reflected in what we do."

'Building the Right Systems'

Durham educators and school board members readily admit that all the emphasis on community involvement and inclusive democracy takes time.

It also goes in the opposite direction from the decades-long trend of a school improvement model driven mostly by tests scores, and other forms of "data," and devoted to command-and-control decisions made by central offices in local, state, and federal governments.

"Unfortunately, there are still so many pressures from standardized assessments that are not helping students," Beyer says. "The community schools model creates some tensions for school boards because we're still being held accountable by these state and federal measures. The state should trust local leaders and give them time and space to create what's best for their students," she says.

Another problem the model faces is that it doesn't fall into the traditional media narrative of schools as places with heroic individuals—the one great teacher or the hard-charging principal—but rather as institutions with systems and problem-solving processes.

"Reporters always want those heartwarming family stories," Grant notes, "and I could give you plenty of those, but that's not what's transforming our school. Building the right systems and structures is what makes this work. I know that sounds nerdy."

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Joe Biden has a golden opportunity to strengthen public education

In picking Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona to be his nominee for U.S. secretary of education, President-elect Joe Biden appears to have made a Goldilocks choice that pleases just about everyone. People who rarely agree on education policy have praised the decision, including Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit group that advocates for charter schools and school choice, who called Cardona "good news," and education historian Diane Ravitch, who also called the pick "good news" because he does not seem to be aligned with advocates for charter schools and vouchers. Sara Sneed, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation, a public charity founded by educators, called Cardona an "ideal candidate," in an email, and hailed him for "his emphasis on the need to end structural racism in education and for his push for greater educational equity and opportunity through public schools."

But as Biden and Cardona—should he be approved, as most expect—begin to address the array of critical issues that confront the nation's schools, there's bound to be more of a pushback. Or maybe not?

After decades of federal legislation that emphasized mandating standardized testing and tying school and teacher evaluations to the scores; imposing financial austerity on public institutions; incentivizing various forms of privatization; and undermining teachers' professionalism and labor rights, there is a keen appetite for a new direction for school policy.

Due to the disruption forced by the pandemic, much is being written and said about the need to "restart and reinvent" education and a newfound appreciation for schools as essential infrastructure for families and children. With an incoming Biden administration, Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, and the influence of incoming first lady Jill Biden, a career educator, we may be on the cusp of a historic moment when the stars align to revitalize public schools in a way that hasn't happened in a generation.

Among the promising ideas that appear to have growing momentum behind them are proposals to fund schools more equitably, to expand community schools that take a more holistic approach to educating students, to create curriculum and pedagogy that are relevant to the science of how children learn and the engagement of their families, and to reverse the direction of accountability measures from top-down mandates to bottom-up community-based endeavors.

In her email, Sneed praised Biden's commitment to expand the community schools model to an additional 300,000 students. She said, "My hope is that his effort will bring community schools to every part of the country, including the American South which is so often under resourced."

Where's the opposition to these ideas?

In her farewell address to the Education Department, before she tendered her resignation with a mere 13 days left, outgoing secretary Betsy DeVos told career staff members to "be the resistance" to an incoming Biden administration, Politico reported. In her farewell letter to Congress, she urged lawmakers to "reject Biden's education agenda," according to the Washington Post.

Does anyone really think there are any federal officials who will heed this advice?

During her tenure, DeVos cut more than 500 positions from her department, 13 percent of its staff, and proposed enormous funding cuts to programs. Employees accused her of "gutting" their labor agreement, reported the Washington Post, and replacing it with new rules that stripped out worker protections and disability rights, among other provisions. Employee morale "plummeted" under her management, Education Week reported, and she threatened to suspend an employee who leaked her plan to slash the department's resources.

In Congress, DeVos was constantly besieged—from her approval, which required a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, a historic first, to her contentious final in-person hearing. Her proposals to dramatically shrink federal spending on education went nowhere, and her many proposals for a federal school voucher program were never taken up by Congress.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten captured most people's sentiments when DeVos resigned, saying just two words: "Good riddance."

Instead of taking up DeVos's calls for "resistance," Capitol Hill seems much more likely to welcome Biden-Cardona with open arms.

An "early test" for Cardona, as Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports, will be deciding whether or not to let states opt out of administering federally mandated standardized tests to every student. In 2020, DeVos had let states waive the mandate, but she announced she would enforce the requirement in 2021 should she remain in office.

As Strauss reported, should Cardona decide to waive the order, he would please a broad consensus, including state and local superintendents, teachers' unions, state and local boards of education, and federal and state lawmakers "from both sides of the political aisle." At least one national survey has found that a sizable majority of parents want the tests canceled.

Another potentially contentious issue will be Biden's "pledge to reopen most schools" for in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. Attempts to reopen schools during a pandemic have caused teachers in many school districts to rebel by writing their obituaries, staging mock funerals, resigning, calling in sick, and organizing strikes and other labor actions.

However, the operative word in Biden's pledge to reopen is "safely." His proposal rests on key conditions, including getting the virus under control in surrounding communities, setting health and safety guidelines recommended by experts, and providing sufficient funding to protect returning students, teachers, and support staff.

This is the complete opposite of Trump and DeVos, who simply demanded schools reopen and then did nothing to support the reopening process.

When a reporter from the Associated Press asked Weingarten to comment on Biden's proposal to reopen schools, she replied, "Hallelujah."

In his leadership of Connecticut schools, Cardona has taken a similarly non-ideological stance on keeping schools open in the pandemic, as Education Week's Evie Blad explains in a video (beginning at 5:57), by "[encouraging] schools to keep their doors open" and "providing resources" and "support." But he "never mandated" schools to deliver in-person instruction.

Congress, where Democrats have a small majority in the House and a razor-thin margin in the Senate, may be resistant to provide the necessary funding Biden wants. But as Education Week's Andrew Ujifusa explains, Democrats are mostly united in getting a "big new relief package" passed and have a way to overcome Republican opposition using budget reconciliation.

On the issue of charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of "school choice," which was DeVos's signature issue, Biden has stated he does "not support federal money for for-profit charter schools," and said they often "[siphon] off money from our public schools, which are already in enough trouble."

Based on this measured stance, some, including Trump, have warned Biden would "abolish" charter schools and school choice, which is simply not true.

Cardona has taken a similarly evenhanded view of charters, the Connecticut Mirror reports. Under his leadership in Connecticut, existing charters were renewed while no new ones were approved. "Asked about charter schools during his confirmation hearing [for Connecticut commissioner of education]," the article notes, "Cardona said he'd rather focus his energy making sure neighborhood public schools are viable options."

This is a refreshing change, not only from DeVos's rhetoric for privatization, but also from previous presidential administrations, including Obama's, that openly advocated for charter schools. It foretells that perhaps what Biden-Cardona might bring to the policy discussion over charter schools and other forms of school choice is some genuinely honest conversation rather than sloganeering about charters.

Where Biden and Cardona are most likely to encounter headwinds to their education policies are from Republicans stuck in the ongoing culture wars.

Eight days before a mob of Trump supporters, driven by the president's tirades against losing reelection, broke into the nation's Capitol, sent lawmakers into seclusion, and desecrated the building, Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, reminded us that public education has long been a public institution in the crosshairs of right-wing ideologues. Asked by Guardian reporter David Smith, "where does the Republican party go from here?" Gingrich replied, "What you have, I think, is a Democratic party driven by a cultural belief system that they're now trying to drive through the school system so they can brainwash the entire next generation if they can get away with it."

Evidence of that "brainwashing" in public schools, supposedly, is the emphasis on the fully supportive inclusion of all students and protection of their civil rights that was behind many of the policy guidelines laid down by the Obama administration. DeVos rescinded many of those guidelines, but Biden has vowed to restore them.

Another source of potential discontent with the new energy that Biden and Cardona will likely bring to education policy are the holdovers of the "education reform" movement, who want to bring back in full force the top-down mandates from the Bush and Obama administrations, including charter school expansions, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and closing public schools based on their test scores.

For this crew, the central problem in education will always be "bad teachers," and nothing but the most punitive accountability measures will do.

A case in point is a recent piece in New York Magazine extolling charter schools in which columnist Jonathan Chait writes that "the core dispute" in education politics is "a tiny number of bad teachers, protectively surrounded by a much larger circle of union members, surrounded in turn by an even larger number of Democrats who have only a vague understanding of the issue."

In other words, if you don't think cracking down on teachers and their unions is critical to improving schools, then you're just not informed.

For decades, education policy has largely been a compromise between these two dominant factions of right-wing Republican ideologues and Democratic neoliberals, according to David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. In a podcast hosted by journalist Jennifer Berkshire and education historian Jack Schneider, Menefee-Libey explains that charter schools and many other prominent features of federal education policy are the results of a "treaty" among these Republican and Democratic factions.

But as Menefee-Libey, Berkshire, and Schneider explain, in so many ways, the treaty has been broken, and after decades of attacks on public schools, we're seeing the necessity of investing in public institutions, especially now, given the strains put on parents and communities by COVID-19.

"We are now at a point," Menefee-Libey states, "where all of those large-scale, long-term public institutions are clearly at risk during the pandemic and the economic crash. [And] there are a lot of people [who] are discovering that maybe these institutions won't automatically survive."

Therein lies the golden opportunity for Biden on public education. Should he decide to go bold—not just by reopening schools with additional funding but also by proposing an ambitious investment in school infrastructure and community schools; not just by lifting burdensome accountabilities but also by actually listening to what teachers, parents, and students say they need for their schools to work; and not by trying to appease the tired, old arguments carried on by right-wing factions and reform fans in the Democratic Party—there is some likelihood he may get exactly what he wants. And that's what our schools really need.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

Worse than Betsy DeVos: The disturbing story of 2020 school board elections

When a Biden victory in the 2020 presidential election became certain, supporters of public education gleefully took to social media to say good riddance to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos came into office with an agenda to further the privatization of public education by expanding charter schools and by encouraging families to opt out of public schools by any means possible. During her tenure, she effectively used her bully pulpit to cheer on efforts by Republican state lawmakers to expand various forms of voucher programs that give parents public money to homeschool their children or send them to private schools. She awarded many of the nation's largest charter school chains with millions in federal funding, and she used the pandemic as an opportunity to redirect emergency funds for public schools to private schools and internet-based instruction—all the while refusing to even visit struggling public schools.

Biden is expected to oppose voucher programs and limit the growth of the charter school industry. But despite the promising prospect of a transition from DeVos to a Biden administration, progressive public school advocates can't afford to overlook a threat to democratically governed schools that preceded DeVos and will continue when she is long gone.

In midsized metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and Stockton, California, parents, teachers, and public school advocates warn of huge sums of money coming from outside their communities to influence local politics and bankroll school board candidates who support school privatization. In phone conversations, emails, and texts, they point to a national agenda, backed by deep-pocketed organizations and individuals who intend to disrupt local school governance in order to impose forms of schools that operate like private contractors rather than public agencies—an agenda not dissimilar from that of DeVos.

In the 2020 school board election in Indianapolis, local teachers and grassroots groups the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the IPS Community Coalition backed four candidates against a slate of opponents whom locals accuse of representing outside interests. At stake, according to WFYI, was "an ideological tilt" over whether the district would continue to "collaborate with outside groups and charter organizations" or "return to more traditional methods of improving struggling schools."

Both sides raise the banner of "improving struggling schools," but locals say what's really at stake is whether voters retain democratic control of their public schools or see them turned over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders.

Similarly, in Stockton, the clash between opposing slates of candidates in the 2020 school board election included controversies over charter school expansion and the influence of outside money in the district.

The controversy broke into public view in July 2020 when 209 Times reported that "[p]aid operatives" connected to Stockton's outgoing mayor Michael Tubbs and three school board members were engaged in "a coordinated campaign of undue influence from outside of the city whose aim is… charter school expansion" into the district.

In both elections, candidates backed by outside organizations and individuals massively outspent candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates.

In Indianapolis, WFYI reported that political action committees supporting the candidates aligned with charter school interests had contributed more than $200,000 into the election by October 9, while the "[f]our candidates backed by the IPS Community Coalition… [had by then] raised less than $20,000 in total."

In Stockton, 209 Politics reported independent expenditure committees supporting candidates favoring charter school expansion outspent their opponents 25 to 1.

While the language used by these outside organizations and their benefactors is different from the rhetoric DeVos wields—substituting a message of rescuing struggling schools for DeVos's calls for libertarian autonomy—the result is much the same: local citizens see democratic governance of their schools being swept aside as private actors get more control to do what they want.

The fear, as Indianapolis teacher and community activist Dountonia Batts described to me, is that the influence of outsider money will "further remove public voices from public education."

Who Are the 'Outsiders'?

"Indianapolis school board races have become no longer a local phenomenon, but an event caught up in a national agenda to privatize and corporatize public education," says John Loflin, a longtime Indianapolis public school advocate with Parent Power, the Indianapolis affiliate of Parents Across America. "What started out as a push for a few local charters has grown [over the last decade]. Now, Indianapolis is home of America's second-most privatized public school system," he observes, citing an analysis by retired teacher and blogger Thomas Ultican, who has meticulously tracked the influence of national groups disrupting local school politics.

Ultican explains the "major role" played by local organization the Mind Trust and the substantial financial backing the Mind Trust receives from philanthropists and foundations outside of the district, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart fame; Arnold Ventures, the private foundation of former hedge fund manager and Enron trader John Arnold; and the City Fund, a nationwide organization providing financial support for city-level charter school expansions.

Another outside big spender in Indianapolis is Stand for Children, an Oregon-based education 501(c)(4) recruited by the Mind Trust in 2011 to advocate for "education reforms" that eventually entailed the creation of "autonomous" schools, including charter schools.

In a 2014 op-ed for the Indianapolis Recorder, local columnist Amos Brown posed the possibility that the outsized spending by Stand for Children meant it was "buying" the school board. Brown criticized the group for not divulging its total spending in the district, which experts estimated at around $500,000, Brown stated.

By 2016, six of the seven Indianapolis school board members had "been elected with the support of Stand for Children… which has poured undisclosed amounts of money into the IPS elections since 2012," reported IndyStar.

In the 2020 election, Ultican reports, outside money flowed to four candidates: four-term incumbent Diane Arnold; Will Pritchard, who had barely missed out on being appointed to an open seat in 2015; one-term incumbent Venita Moore; and challenger Kenneth Allen, who was taking on incumbent Elizabeth Gore, the only candidate to win in 2016 without the support of Stand for Children.

In 2020, campaign contributions also came from a new PAC aligned with Stand for Children, RISE Indy, whose major contributors, WFYI reports, include $200,000 from Alice Walton, a daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and $100,000 from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

RISE Indy's leadership also has personal ties to the charter industry. Its founder has a sister who started a charter school and another sister who worked for the Mind Trust before becoming a partner at the City Fund, Chalkbeat reports.

As Ultican reports, another pro-charter actor wielding outside money to influence Indianapolis schools is Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, an organization founded by former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson, whose administration brought the first charters to the district. The organization has drawn donations from charter school promoters, including $200,000 from Netflix founder Reed Hastings.

Four candidates endorsed by the Indiana teachers' union (Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, or I-PACE, the political action division of the Indiana State Teachers Association, or ISTA) and the IPS Community Coalition were the incumbent Gore and first-time candidates Christina Smith, Daqavise Winston, and Brandon Randall.

According to Ultican's calculations of the money that has been disclosed so far, total campaign contributions from pro-charter PACs dwarfed contributions from the teachers' union by more than 11 to 1.

Stockton has drawn a similar cast of outsiders to its local school politics scene, according to 209 Politics, with large donations coming from Bloomberg and the Campaign for Great Public Schools, the "political arm" of the City Fund.

The candidates who benefited from the largesse were first-time candidates Viola Shackelford and Valentino Silva as well as incumbent Lange Luntao. Opposing these candidates were candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates: Alicia Rico, first-time candidate Ray Zulueta, and incumbent Cecilia Mendez.

"There's a lot of division in our community caused by big money coming into the district," Zulueta told me in a phone call. "Mayor Tubbs and some current members of the school board don't want to admit this… or communicate what's really going on."

Although Zulueta did not mention names, the current board members whom he might have been referring to were AngelAnn Flores, who "is a current employee of Aspire Charter Schools," according to a July report by 209 Times; Candelaria Vargas, who 209 Times reports is married to Max Vargas, senior policy adviser to Mayor Tubbs; and Luntao, Zulueta's opponent, who has been under a conflict of interest investigation for approving a board resolution to add charter schools to the district despite having been an employee of Aspire, one of the charter organizations considered for the district, as the Stockton Record reports.

Zulueta said that Stockton's current political leadership is generally out of touch with the character and needs of the community. "We're an agricultural and small-business and trades community," he explained. "This current group doesn't understand this and looks to ideas from big cities… like corporatization with charter schools."

A Big Business-Right-Wing Agenda

The presence of the City Fund in these elections is particularly noteworthy.

Chalkbeat reporter Matt Barnum describes the City Fund as a "major player" in using its considerable financial clout to promote the growth of "charter and charter-like schools" in local politics and school board races. The organization has targeted more than a dozen cities, including Indianapolis and Stockton, with large sums of money they pass through "city-based organizations and charter networks" that can add to the illusion that their support is local rather than national.

Barnum has previously reported how the success of the Mind Trust's efforts in Indianapolis inspired the creation of an advocacy network in 2017 called Education Cities and then, in 2018, the formation of the City Fund, with a $200 million grant from Arnold and Hastings.

The idea behind all these organizations, Barnum explained, was to form a network of groups across the country intent on advancing an idea known as a "portfolio model" for schools.

The portfolio approach uses a Wall Street metaphor as a philosophy for governing schools. The basic idea is that school boards should treat their schools as if they were a stock portfolio, and board members should be agnostic about who runs individual schools. Private contractors, such as charter schools, are brought into the district in order to diversify the investments in the portfolio, and the role of the elected board becomes more about tracking the performance of each school, based on test scores, and selling off (closing) schools at the bottom or turning them over to other private contractors.

Another organization that was nurtured by this well-funded free-market ideology is School Board Partners, which announced its debut in 2018, Barnum reported.

According to Barnum's reporting, School Board Partners seeks to "form a network of [current] school board members in at least 10 cities" who have an interest in "coaching and consulting services" related to adopting the portfolio model. Current Stockton board members Luntao, Flores, and Vargas appear to be partners in the organization, according to 209 Times.

The "national scope" of these organizations "has gone mostly unexamined," Barnum writes, "even as their influence is arguably far more likely to affect schools in the average American city than a Betsy DeVos-inspired voucher program."

In addition to emphasizing charter schools, the portfolio model also often calls for creating so-called innovation schools—charter-like schools that are led by private boards and therefore are much less accountable to locally elected public officials. The idea originated in the policy workshop of the American Legislative Executive Council, a collaborative of big businesses and right-wing organizations to influence state legislation through the creation of model bills.

The concept, says Loflin, "is another way to wrestle away the voters' direct democratic control of their public schools and turn them over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders."

Batts calls innovation schools "charter schools without the charter," i.e., the contract document between a charter school and its authorizer.

But does the portfolio approach actually benefit the communities where they operate?

The City Fund's website cites research that has shown some positive results from charter schools in urban communities, but the studies do not appear to be about results that can be attributed to the work of the City Fund or adopting the portfolio model.

In a 2016 policy brief on the portfolio schools model issued by the National Education Policy Center, William Mathis and Kevin Welner write that there is "a very limited body of generally accepted research" on the benefits of the model, and they note that "the private management of a community's schools eliminates democratic accountability."

Looking solely at innovation schools, a 2020 analysis Terrenda White and Anna Noble did for the National Education Policy Center cautions, "Districts should temper their calls for 'unrestricted autonomy' of public schools. This suggestion to exercise caution is due not only to evidence of the varied and short-lived nature of academic gains among autonomous schools, but also because of unequal geographies of opportunity within districts."

White and Noble warn that further reliance on autonomous schools like charters and innovation schools risks "[d]istrict responsibility for equity" being "displaced, or too broadly diffused across schools." And rather than importing ideas from distant think tanks and advocacy groups, the authors' recommendation is for "[s]chool improvement strategies" to be "tied to regional and community-based approaches."

'Selected Not Elected'

In their 2019 book Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics, Jeffrey Henig, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Sarah Reckhow examine the injection of external funding into local elections in five urban districts, including Indianapolis. They find a dramatic escalation in money spent in school board races, especially by outside donors who "hope that local education reform efforts" they backed in some communities "[become] national models for other school districts to follow."

The authors contend that financial support from teachers' unions can sometimes counterbalance the influence of outside donors and their associated organizations. However, it seems clear from the 2020 school board election campaigns in Indianapolis and Stockton that there are many communities in which unions simply can't match the financial clout of outside money.

The authors' research finds very few examples of nationally prominent progressive political groups and individuals who have consistently allied with local teachers and public school activists to oppose the influence of outside money.

A notable exception, the authors find, is the Working Families Party, which has organized for teacher-backed candidates in school board races in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Since the book's publication, the Working Families Party has emerged as an ally to public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, too.

While Henig, Jacobsen, and Reckhow find the consequences of outside money in local school politics can be "neither wholly good nor wholly bad," one conclusion they reach is that the media attention that increased outsider money brings to school board elections often leads to "a narrower policy agenda focused on nationalized issues, sometimes at the expense of more localized issues that may be of more immediate concern of the local citizenry."

Narrowing the conversation to ideological issues backed by outsiders—whether it's DeVos's libertarian belief in "school choice" or the emphasis on free-market ideals favored by advocates for the portfolio model—risks crowding out more research-based approaches to school improvement, such as adequate funding, high-quality teaching, and equity of learning opportunity regardless of students' race, income, or language. This certainly was the case in the 2020 school board elections in Indianapolis and Stockton. Yet, while these races had much in common, they had starkly different results.

In Indianapolis, "Candidates favoring charters and school choice claimed a sweeping victory," Chalkbeat reported, "winning all four seats."

In Stockton, teacher- and community-backed candidates Mendez, Rico, and Zulueta all won, the Record reported.

The results in Indianapolis prompted John Loflin to reflect, "U.S. citizens want the right to control public education by electing school boards. People went to jail and others died for our right to vote for those who represent them. Allowing boards of charters and innovation schools to be selected, not elected, is nothing more than a power grab to transfer control of public education and its funding to private interests."

In Stockton, Ray Zulueta's comments are understandably more upbeat. "There is no higher civic duty than community coming together to make decisions on their locality as one," he said. "We have resoundingly rejected the influence of outside interests in Stockton, and [we] look forward to returning the decision-making power back to our community members."

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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