Betsy DeVos has a lot of work to do on charter schools

Betsy DeVos is off to a rocky start
Betsy DeVos is off to a rocky start

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Betsy DeVos is off to a rocky start 02:11

Story highlights

  • Andre Perry says the education secretary should begin her tenure by cleaning up the charter school mess that she helped create
  • Instead of expanding mediocrity, she should encourage true innovation among charters, says Perry

Dr. Andre Perry is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan and author of "The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City." He was the CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network, which consisted of four charter schools in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter @andreperryedu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)In his first address to Congress, President Donald Trump teed up his $20 billion dollar voucher program, which he first announced on the campaign trail, for newly installed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to implement.

Andre Perry
This is the same DeVos who inexplicably said in a written statement a day earlier that historically black colleges and universities are "real pioneers" of school choice. HBCUs emerged during a time when blacks were not allowed to attend white institutions -- blacks didn't have a choice.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal education law passed last year, was designed to prevent overreach by a secretary of education. It prohibits the secretary from imposing national standards. It also limits a clearly unprepared DeVos who, during her confirmation hearing, defended school personnel carrying guns to prevent potential grizzly bear attacks. She also equivocated on whether she would uphold the 2011 Title IX guidance of the Office of Civil Rights to help protect victims of sexual assault on campus.
    Still, our secretary of education must start somewhere. Given the policy restrictions and her lack of depth, DeVos should begin her tenure by reforming the educational options that she helped create as an advocate for charter schools and vouchers.
    After more than 25 years of charter development, it's almost cliché to say "the research is mixed." In particular, charter schools on average are as effective as their traditional peers and look amazingly similar to their traditional school neighbors. Ironically, the previous administration's crusade for charters led to an expansion of generic schools that didn't offer quality alternatives. When charters differentiate themselves by offering specialized academic programs, they show they can add value.
    Instead of expanding mediocrity, she should encourage true innovation among charters that addresses the chronic problems that were hurting families before the proliferation of the sector: suspension and expulsion, inadequate services for special needs students and limited course offerings in urban schools.
    Still, DeVos will have to deliver on Trump's campaign promises and that will probably involve some type of voucher program.
    On the campaign trail, Trump said his first budget would include an additional $20 billion to create block grants that states could use to allow those dollars to follow a child to a school of their parents' choosing.
    Dems mount 24-hour blitz against DeVos
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    Through her organizations, the American Federation for Children and the American Federation Growth Fund, DeVos sponsors and advocates for over two dozen programs (vouchers and tax-credits) in seventeen states and the District of Columbia.
    Voucher proponents argue that competition can help lift educational outcomes. Vouchers are intended to empower families that can't afford the tuition of private schools. You'll hear that theory in the rallying cries of the charter movement: "Low-income families should have the same educational options as the wealthy," and "families shouldn't be trapped in failing [public] schools."
    But DeVos' policies must explicitly address the flaws in that theory if she's sincere about providing quality options.
    When it comes to giving parents options, DeVos must acknowledge they aren't the only ones doing the choosing. Private schools don't have to enroll voucher students. Ostensibly, the most selective schools don't take vouchers, and they have little incentive to do so. Many private and faith-based schools were founded (for good and bad reasons) to serve particular populations.
    If DeVos wants to ensure fair access to all schools, she should embolden the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, the interagency department whose mission is "to ensure equal access to education." Her evasiveness during her confirmation hearing on the future of that office seems at odds with the goal of expanding access. Potential cuts to the Department of Education budget won't help matters.
    In addition, educational underperformance in the United States isn't driven by public schools alone. DeVos must assume private schools to be as much a problem as she considers them solutions. Many private schools should close.
    Betsy DeVos appears to have plagiarized
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    In my home state of Louisiana, one of the lowest-performing in the country, findings from an analysis of the state's voucher program shows it "had a negative impact on participating students' academic achievement in the first two years of its operation, most clearly in math." This follows a slew of similar findings.
    DeVos should learn from the Bayou state, which in a political rush opened up the private school market much too carelessly. Schools must be held accountable at the front and back ends. To give families quality private options, states must thoroughly vet schools that want to participate. States must also make those findings public so families can be as knowledgeable about their private options as they are of their public choices (which in many cases also don't present enough information about quality).
    If private and faith-based schools want public money and live up to the promise of providing options, they need to be more public.
    In addition, vouchers shouldn't be given to people who don't need them -- the middle class. Trump emphasized this point in his joint address.
    Compelling states to limit eligibility of vouchers to low-income families will be difficult with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Even more difficult, limiting eligibility would have DeVos go against her own interests.
    Influenced by the advocacy of DeVos-funded organizations and campaign contributions, then-Gov. Mike Pence raised the income ceiling. Those changes made Indiana's voucher program the largest in the country, including 32,000 participants who never attended a public school, and the number of low-income black participants declined dramatically. It's unlikely DeVos would argue against what has become a middle class benefit in the Vice President's home state.
    Just as many state merit scholarships for college have become middle class entitlements, hamstringing state budgets, so will vouchers if DeVos doesn't encourage regulation -- something she didn't do in Detroit, whose educational system the Detroit Free Press described as a "laughingstock" and the "wild west." DeVos lobbied hard against various accountability measures and regulations that have proven to increase performance in places like New Orleans.
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    DeVos doesn't have the knowledge, expertise or authority to revolutionize education. But she already has influence on the mediocre reform programs she helped create. She shouldn't expand choice as a start. Cleaning up her own mess would be real progress.