The Democrats opposition to Betsy DeVos says more about them than it does about her

The headline of this article comes from the words of Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, spoken yesterday from the Senate floor as quoted by the Washington Post’s Emma Brown.  He is absolutely correct.  The fierce opposition toward Ms. DeVos is from those that want to preserve a status in public education that, as she stated during her confirmation hearing, is one in which one size fits all when it comes to teaching our kids.  Unfortunate for those on the fringe of the political left, including the teachers’ unions, school choice has already broken through the clouds and is shining its bright light on communities throughout this nation.

Ms. Brown describes a Capitol Hill event in which families were represented who send their children to charter schools and who take advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federally funded private school voucher plan here in the District for those living in poverty.  She mentions that it was one of 21,000 events across the United States currently taking place as part of School Choice Week.  The reporter writes that “Malik Washington, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, said that the voucher program had been a gift for him and his sister, who were raised by a single mother working a minimum-wage job.”  From Ms. Brown’s piece:

“For our families to have the same opportunities that wealthier families have when it comes to school is beautiful,’ Washington said.”

In fact, it is the same experience that President Obama’s children have had since Sidwell Friends, where his kids go to school, also participates in the OSP.  So does Georgetown Day School, Gonzaga College High School, The Jewish Primary Day School, The National Cathedral School, The National Presbyterian SchoolSt. Albans School, St. Johns College High School, St. Peters School, and The Field School, among many others.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama went along with the unions and throughout his eight years tried to end the scholarships.  We now have a chance to greatly expand the number of scholars who can take advantage of these great educational institutions.

Do I wish that Ms. DeVos had done a better job at her confirmation hearing?  Of course I do.  But here is the bottom line.  During her career she has done more through our schools to help those that are less fortunate than 99 percent of our population.  In the face of education reform at the federal level that has been going on since the 1950s without much to show for it except billions of dollars being wasted, it is time for something new.

Former Mayor Anthony Williams supports her and that is good enough for me.  The Senate should confirm Betsy DeVos.

Opposition to Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary reflects interests of adults over children

Those of us who follow education reform have seen this scenario time and time again.  Someone comes along who supports making parents the customer when it comes to deciding where kids can attend school and the opposition rallies as if it is time to fight World War III.

Perhaps this analogy is only slightly too extreme.  The teachers’ unions will do or say just about anything to protect the power they have to maintain the status quo of an educational delivery system which treats every child the same no matter what their individual needs or desires.  They proclaim load and clear that it is the bureaucracy that knows best how to teach young people and if parents try to buck the system their offspring will be relegated to classrooms with the lowest performing instructors where the trouble making pupils have been assigned.

Our family faced this scenario when our kids were growing up in Reston, Virginia, and although they are now adults it comes back to me only too clearly.  We had an elementary school principal who went with fads.  Our first grade daughter had phonics removed from the classroom to be replaced with the whole language approach.  My wife had to teach her to read at home.  Simultaneously, with our older daughter in fourth grade the school turned to a math textbook bent on raising the self-esteem of girls and minorities.  When you looked inside there was almost no math present.  We taught her the multiplication tables using flashcards.

Fortunately, those days are gone and for millions of people across this country school choice has resulted in parents being able to vote with their feet as to which educational institutions are best for their children.  Here in the District of Columbia only 25 percent of scholars attend their neighborhood schools.  Charters now educate 41,677 individuals representing 46 percent of all public education students.  In addition, we are fortunate that there is another local option for our kids.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides private school scholarships for students living in poverty.  The plan was approved during the George W. Bush Administration and due to union pressure President Obama has tried to close it throughout his term.  It helps about 1,200 pupils a year but now with a new group, Serving our Children, running it the hope is to enroll thousands more.  When the battle was being fought to get this life preserver for poor kids passed by Congress the effort was funded by Betsy DeVos along side Joseph E. Robert, Jr.

Ms. DeVos must be confirmed as the next Education Secretary of the United States.

A thrilling EdFest 2016

Last Saturday my wife Michele and I had the great pleasure of heading over to the DC Armory to attend EdFest 2016.  Picture this:  hundreds of parents with children in tow visiting row after row of information booths representing public schools in the nation’s capital.  The timing of the event is perfect in that the common lottery, My School DC, opens today.

This is the third time for this annual gathering, which in the past was known as the Charter School Expo.  In one of the most visually symbolic manifestations of cooperation between the two sectors, charters and traditional schools not only share the same space; they are located right next to each other due to being positioned in alphabetical order.  In fact, you really had to pay close attention to determine whether a particular school was under the umbrella of the DC Public Charter School Board or DCPS.

Because of the significance of the occasion the leaders of each branch were in attendance.  Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, traversed the crowd, speaking to many of the charter leaders manning booths.  Jennie Niles, the Deputy Mayor for Education, also greeted the guests.  I was extremely interested in talking to Antwan Wilson, Mayor Bowser’s nominee to be the next DCPS Chancellor, but Ms. Niles stated that he had been sent home because lately he had been seeing more of her than his own wife.  The Deputy Mayor added that she was proud of the job Mr. Wilson had done before his confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council just last Thursday.

We also had the pleasure of seeing Keith Gordon, the always upbeat chief operating officer of Fight for Children.  He was there with his two kids and if you include Mr. Pearson and Ms. Niles along with the two of us then astonishingly you had together five attendees of last week’s exceptionally elegant retirement party for Michela English, Fight for Children’s president and chief executive officer, held at the RIS Restaurant in Northwest.  Mr. Gordon becomes head of the organization January 1, 2017.

But the absolute highlight for us was visiting the folks from IDEA Public Charter School.  Michele was greeted as a rock star because she had written not too long ago a Washington Post real estate section cover story about the school’s partnership with the Academy of Construction and Design, which trains students at the charter to be able to work as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics.  Justin Rydstrom, the head of the school, welcomed us warmly between talking to prospective school parents, and Shelly Karriem, the program director, joined Michele and about five other excited staff members and scholars in a group photograph.  Ms. Karriem pointed out that right behind us was a framed copy of Michele’s article that Mr. Rydstrom had prepared for all to see.

We also had the chance to converse with representatives from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and Serving our Children, the group that now administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program.  In fact, there were so many people to talk to it was exceedingly difficult to leave.  We are already looking forward to next year.

National Alliance model charter school law excludes charter-traditional school compact

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has come up with a revised version of its 2009 model charter school law that covers a plethora of topics relevant to these innovative educational institutions.  The goal of the document is “to create a model charter public school law that is grounded in principle, flexible enough to serve in a wide variety of state policy environments, and well-supported by research.”  The authors point out that the blueprint is most applicable to the seven states that currently lack a charter school law.  It is not going to work.

My experience this summer in attending the Amplify School Choice conference sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity taught me about some key components that must be included in such a framework.  The meeting, which included myself and 49 other bloggers, was meant to introduce us to the theory of school choice, but for someone like me who thinks about this subject on a daily basis, it really changed my approach to the subject.

The session was held in Denver and the location was no accident.  It turns out that this city has the academically fastest-growing public schools in the nation.  But it was not the test scores that captured my attention.

We heard from a wide variety of speakers.  No matter whether the individual at the front of the room was from the political right, left, or middle, or even if he or she had no specific ideological position, they shared one common attribute.   They were all committed to the fostering of an educational marketplace.

Uniformly they stated that they had come to this conclusion because in the recent past the schools had been doing such a poor job educating students.  But I came to understand that there was perhaps a more fundamental reason for their viewpoint.  The Denver school choice model is based upon an educational collaborative compact.

As I have written about before, the compact spells out specifically how the charter schools and Denver Public Schools will work together for the benefit of the students they serve.  It has requirements specifically for charters and also for the regular schools.  The document also spells out how the two sectors will work together, which includes promotion of each others’ work.

I have made the point that Washington D.C. desperately needs such an agreement.  Failure of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools to include an outline of such a compact in its model school law will lead to the battles over charters that have been witnessed throughout the United States.  The paper should go back to the drawing board.

The Center for Education Reform’s New Opportunity Agenda

I had the great fortune to attend a luncheon last Wednesday hosted by the Center for Education Reform held at the stately National Press Club.  The reason that an overflow crowd of about 300 people gathered together was to hear from CER founder and chief executive officer Jeanne Allen about a subject I wrote about a year ago.  Last May, I opined that the pace of school reform has stalled in Washington, D.C.  Ms. Allen has observed that this is not only true in the nation’s capital but around the entire United States.

For example, Ms. Allen informed the audience that following the release 40 years ago of the Reagan administration’s Nation at Risk study with its devastating findings regarding the condition of educational instruction taking place at American schools there were 36 reform laws passed over the nine years between 1991 and 2001.  However, she passionately explained, today one in three third grade students are not proficient in reading, and it appears that no one seems to care.  Of course, what she was stating is perfectly obvious.  If you have followed this cycle’s Presidential election contests at all you will see that the one area that both the candidates on the right and the left can agree on is that education reform in our public schools is an afterthought.

Ms. Allen and her 23 year old organization desperately want to change this dire situation.  To dissect the current environment further, and to make recommendations for improvement, the program proceeded from the CER CEO’s opening remarks to a fascinating panel discussion featuring John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan; Donald Hense, chair, founder, and CEO of Friendship Public Charter School; and David Levin, president and CEO of McGraw-Hill Education.  Anytime you have the opportunity to hear my hero Mr. Hense speak he will not disappoint and this was certainly the case five days ago.  “We have  turned our movement over to people who have not done anything for the last 100 years,” Mr. Hense calmly explained.  “The charter authorizer here in D.C. now perceives itself as the school board. They are involved in everything and all that we do is regulated. We have lost ourselves. We [school reformers] thought we were done and so we hugged each other and applauded. Meanwhile the traditional schools have rearmed.”  He called for expanded school choice whether that means creating options for parents by nonprofit charter management organizations, for-profit CMO’s, or the use of private school vouchers.

The solution for what ails school improvement from the Center for Education Reform’s vantage point is contained in its manifesto that was released at the session entitled “A Movement at Risk.”  It recommends providing greater flexibility in the ability of schools to make decisions for themselves along with the funding to make this a reality, more consumer oriented school choice, and expanded transparency in the information about school performance across the country.  Whether these public policy proposals will improve academic performance of students is, of course, difficult to tell at this point, but based upon the energy and commitment from the people in the room sincere efforts at fixing public education reform are about to be rebooted.

We have lost some tremendous school choice heroes

A week ago Monday I attended a perfectly hosted event by the CATO Institute celebrating the life of Andrew Coulson.  For ten years Mr. Coulson was the director of the organization’s Center for Educational Freedom.  He died at the age of just 48 on February 7, 2016 from a brain tumor.

Mr. Coulson was best known for his book Market Education: The Unknown History which he wrote in 1999.  Executive vice-president David Boaz reminded those in attendance that Bill Gates quit school to form Microsoft while Mr. Coulson left Microsoft to reform schools.  I knew him for his pioneering effort to better understand the real cost of educating children attending DCPS.  Most people assumed as true that the number was around $15,000 a student a year.  Mr. Coulson showed that the statistic was really double that amount.  No one was ever able to refute his claim.

Mr. Coulson started his career in public policy at the Mackinac Center.  There he worked with Joe Overton, a friend of mine who was another pioneer in the school choice movement.  Mr. Overton passed away at age 43 in 2003 when a plane he was piloting crashed to the ground.  His revolutionary work in education revolved around the use of the Universal Tuition Tax Credit as an alternative to the often negative perceptions associated with private school vouchers.  But I knew Mr. Overton best for the steady ethical advice he provided to me about my own career.

The same illness that overcame Mr. Coulson claimed the life of Joseph E. Robert, Jr.  For years it appeared that it was only Mr. Robert’s indomitable will that led to the continued operation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the federal plan that provides private school tuition for kids living in poverty in Washington, D.C.  We may never really understand why this man who was able to generate so much income during his 59 years decided to give so much of it away to those less fortunate than himself.

Besides the commonalities that all three of these men’s existences ended much earlier than they should have, and that each fought for better educational opportunities for the most vulnerable individuals, they also shared an often all-encompassing love of life.  We saw an excellent example of that in a video presented at the CATO tribute regarding Mr. Coulson in which you could hear him laughing throughout the five minute presentation.  I had the chance to play tennis with Mr. Overton who demonstrated the identical outlook evident in his strong will to win. Anyone who had the chance to attend one Fight Night Gala witnessed firsthand the same quality in Mr. Robert.

It is in honor of these gentleman’s bold legacies and their enthralling love of life that we must continue to fiercely advocate for equal opportunity in public education for those who are the poorest among us.

School choice is a dream for most Americans

Charter schools have seen tremendous growth in the United States.  For example, in 2014 more than 2.6 million children attended a charter.  According to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools this number has more than doubled since 2007.

Sounds good?  Well not really.  Also in 2014, 49,751,000 pupils attended their neighborhood school.  This means that educational choice was only available to 5.4 percent of families.  If you consider other choice programs such as vouchers, educational tax credits, and educational savings accounts the picture is even worse.  According to the CATO Institute, 287,298 scholars took advantage of one of these programs a couple of years ago which translated into about 0.6 percent of all students in the United States. The reason that these numbers look so bad is that so many of these offerings are so small.  For example, I wrote not too long ago about Maryland passing a school voucher law.  That’s good news.  But as CATO’s Jason Bedrick points out, “roughly 1,000 low-income Maryland students could receive a voucher next year, which is great for them, but doesn’t do anything for the other 99.9 percent of Maryland’s 880,000 district school students.”

Here in the District kids are much more fortunate.  44 percent of students, almost 39,000 attend charters.  That compares to about 49,000 attending DCPS.  While this statistic may be impressive the percentage of those in charters has not increased in years.  It is almost as if some parents were fortunate enough to take advantage of choice while others are shutout.  This year’s charter school waiting list is estimated at 8,600 scholars.  The total wait list for all schools in the District is 2,100.

We also have a voucher program in the city for kids living in poverty.  About 1,200 young people receive a scholarship to a private school.  Only 1.4 percent of children get this option.

I don’t really understand what’s going on here.  We talk about streetcars and statehood, homeless shelters and affordable housing.  But if it’s societal ills you really want to fix, then let’s educate our children.  We know that school choice was the fountainhead that led to the significant improvement in the number of quality classrooms.  It’s past time to put this movement in overdrive.


New DCPS budget approaches $29,000 per student

The school choice movement lost a hero recently when the CATO Institute’s Andrew Coulson died on February 7, 2016 at age 48 after a 15 month fight with brain cancer.  He was a fierce advocate of allowing parents to make the decision over the private or public school their children should attend, favoring tax credit funded scholarships for kids over vouchers as a means of keeping government out of the education business.

I did not know Mr. Coulson.  However, we did communicate by email several times during his many years as director of CATO’s Center for Educational Freedom.  His major accomplishment from my point of view was his groundbreaking revelation of what it really costs to teach pupils in our traditional public schools.

Mr. Coulson explained that when making this calculation all expenses need to be taken into account such as employee retirement plans and capital construction costs, funds that are many times excluded in this type of financial analysis.  For example, way back in 2008, he revealed that while D.C.’s Uniform Per Student Funding Formula amount was $8,322, the actual expense was $25,000 a kid once his methodology was taken into account.

The Washington Post’s Perry Stein writes today that Chancellor Kaya Henderson has requested a $910 million fiscal year 2017 budget.  Utilizing Mr. Coulson’s math, and doing some back-of-the-envelope estimations, if Ms. Henderson’s receives the money she is asking for DCPS will allocate about $29,000 annually for every enrolled child.  This is a quantity, Mr. Coulson would assert, equal to about the yearly tuition at Sidwell Friends, the private school where President Obama sends his children.

For this amount of public money, and after 20 years of public school reform, we have student proficiency rates in reading and math at 25 percent, a statistic significantly lower for those living in poverty.  I can now hear Mr. Coulson proclaiming loudly, “Isn’t it about time we tried something new?”

If school choice complicates Promise Neighborhoods then perhaps program should end

The Washington Post’s Michael Allison Chandler wrote an article recently blaming school choice in the nation’s capital as a reason that the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood Program is not working the way it was designed.  She writes about the $25 million plan in Northeast D.C.:

“But the children of Kenilworth-Parkside aren’t all benefiting from the ‘Promise Neighborhood’ program. Less than a third of the 1,600 students who live there attend neighborhood schools; the rest are enrolled in 184 others, scattered across a city that has embraced school choice more than almost any other.”

Promise Neighborhoods were the brainchild of Harlem Children’s Zone’s founder Geoffrey Canada who created the first one in New York City.  What is so interesting about this fact is that after he came up with the notion to provide family support to low income individuals he realized, as he explained to CityBridge co-founder Katherine Bradley, that he would not be able to make true progress in turning around the lives of kids until he opened a school.  He then created the Promise Academy Charter.

The impact of school choice has had a major positive impact on the very students that Promise Neighborhoods are trying to help.   As FOCUS discovered regarding the 2014 DC CAS results:

“The most interesting public charter school news is the widening gap between how well public charters and DCPS students who qualify for free or reduced price school lunch are doing. The gap is now over 15 percentage points in math and almost 13 percentage points in reading. To put this into perspective, if DCPS were able to match DC charters’ performance with economically disadvantaged students, about 2,000 additional poor children within the District would be able to read and do math on grade level.

Among African American students, charters now outperform DCPS by almost 17 percentage points in math and 12 percentage points in reading. Again, if DCPS were able to match charter performance, there would be about 2,000 additional African American students able to read and do math on grade level. For special education students the gap widened to almost 10 percentage points in math and over 5 percentage points in reading. Again, if DCPS were able to match charter performance, there would be about 250 additional special education students able to read and do math on grade level.”

If we would have to give up these gains because school choice complicates Promise Neighborhoods then guess which program should go?

The debate over whether Washington State charter schools are public is not the right argument

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown has a follow-up story today about the recent Washington State Supreme Court decision finding that charter schools are not public schools because their governing boards are not elected by local citizens.  Her piece characterizes the competing arguments over whether these alternative educational institutions truly fit the definition of a public school.  I believe the whole controversy misses the point.

Everyone wishes that traditional neighborhood schools provided the high quality education that children deserve.  But just look at what happened here in Washington, D.C.  Over time the school bureaucracy became completely detached from the children it was serving.  The result was that very little teaching actually occurred in classrooms.  Much more common was the presence of violence, gangs, and illegal drugs.  It became safer for parents to keep their kids home than to send them to school.  The buildings themselves were rotting from years of neglect.  When students did show up their textbooks were missing, as in many cases was the instructor.

In the 1950’s Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman wrote that if we provided every child with a voucher to attend the private or public school of their choice parents would once again become the customer of school systems.  This is exactly what charters have accomplished in this town.  What is so exciting about the turn of events is that this sector is being responsive to those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum.  Many charters in the nation’s capital are taking low income kids who enter schools years behind grade level and bringing them up to academic proficiency and beyond.  These individuals in the past might have landed in jail or perhaps been killed as a result of violent activity.  As Dr. Darrin Woodruff, the chairman of the Public Charter School Board remarked when I interviewed him, “charter schools are changing peoples’ lives.”

I say forget the phony controversy over whether charters perfectly fit the public school paradigm.  Instead let’s be eternally grateful for the competition they have provided that has resulted in all schools, traditional and charter, rising to levels of performance never seen before in this country.  I think this should be more than enough.