Trump's choice for education secretary sparks debate

Trump
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos shake hands at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

The education world is sharply divided over President-elect Donald Trump's nomination of a school-choice champion for secretary of education.

Supporters of charter schools and publicly funded vouchers have celebrated Trump's choice of Elisabeth DeVos, 58, to lead the department that helps shape national education policy. But public school advocates warn that DeVos could undermine public education if she is confirmed by the Senate.

"Betsy" DeVos, a philanthropist, Republican donor, and former head of the Republican Party in Michigan, has never worked in a school. But as chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, she has gained national prominence for her fierce support for school-choice.

After she was nominated by Trump, DeVos stepped down from the federation. She said in a statement that she was "very excited to get to work and to talk about my thoughts and ideas on making American education great again. The status quo is not acceptable. I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world."

She has declined interviews and said it was not appropriate to expound on her views until the Senate confirmation process begins.

Her husband, Dick Jr., established a Michigan charter school in 2010 and is the former CEO of Amway, which his father cofounded.

The reaction to DeVos' nomination was swift. Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, issued a statement praising Trump's choice and said that throughout her career DeVos had "worked to empower parents and give families strong educational options, so they could do what is best for their child."

The REACH Foundation in Harrisburg, which promotes school choice in Pennsylvania, said Trump had demonstrated his administration's commitment "to forge a path toward education reform." And the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national organization based in Washington, called DeVos "a strong champion for parental choice, ensuring that all children, regardless of race or economic status, have access to excellent schools."

Public school advocates and union officials had a different view.

Lawrence A. Feinberg, a Haverford Township School District board member and head of the Keystone State Education Coalition, said he has grave concerns about DeVos and her agenda.

"I firmly believe that public education is a duty and obligation of a democracy, and it is a significant issue I have with charter schools, especially in the context of the recent nomination of Betsy DeVos and her history," Feinberg said last week.

"When you're talking about billionaires, most of them have never been in public school, let alone sent their kids there."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called DeVos "a radical choice" and said she was "the most ideological, anti-public-school nominee for secretary of education since the U.S. Department of Education was created."

Robin J. Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said that the Trump administration was hardly the first to support school choice.

"Every secretary of education we have had since [President Bill] Clinton at least has been supportive of charter schools - at least high-quality charter schools," Lake said.

"The reality is the feds have little control over education. Mostly, she will have a bully pulpit. And the question is: How will she use it?"

A national study released last week said unfettered charter expansion in urban areas can undermine school districts and increase educational inequities, adding fuel to the debate over DeVos' nomination.

The report from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington examined the consequences of charter growth in 11 cities where at least 20 percent of students attend charters, including Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, where 32 percent of students attend charters, ranks eighth in the country in the percentage of charter students, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said last month.

The EPI study, which was written by Rutgers University professor Bruce D. Baker, found that charter expansion in districts with large numbers of low-income and minority students has led to cuts in resources.

Those cuts, Baker said, caused more gaps in the educational resources available for students at district schools and created inefficiencies and redundancies as charters and districts duplicated efforts.

"With the expansion of charter schooling, public districts are being left with legacy debts associated with capital plants and employee retirement systems in district schools," his report said.

His 72-page report was completed before the presidential election results were known, but Baker said keeping tabs on charters was especially important because Trump has pledged to support legislation to send more federal money to charter schools.

EPI is a nonpartisan think thank in Washington. More than a quarter of its funding comes from unions.

Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that the EPI report's findings were not surprising because nearly 30 percent of the institute's board members lead unions, which have long opposed charters.

Baker's report, he said, was focused largely on maintaining the status quo in public schooling.

And Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago, said Baker's report looked at economics and inefficiencies while saying little about academics or why parents chose charters.

"There is almost nothing in here about academic outcomes for kids," Richmond said. "That's troubling."

Other national studies have found that the academic performance of charter schools varies but that students in some urban charters are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than their peers in district schools.

AFT's Weingarten said the EPI report was timely.

"This report is important because it shows what happens when charters, regardless of quality, need or other factors - the type of schools pushed by billionaires like Betsy DeVos - grow so exponentially as to damage and destabilize all other public schools in a district."

martha.woodall@phillynews.com 215-854-2789 @marwooda

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