Category Archives: Politics of Education

Questions for Betsy DeVos Inspired by Education Outcomes in Michigan

Tonight is Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Education. Because DeVos doesn’t have a track record as a government official or leader within the public school or higher education system, as most of her predecessors do, analysts are looking at her role as a funder, GOP donor, and board member of education organizations to understand what she might do as Secretary. This scrutiny has drawn particular attention to DeVos’ engagement in education advocacy and political causes in Michigan, where her donations and advocacy have touched many major education policy decisions over the past 20 years.

In many ways, the education system in Michigan is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing the broader U.S. education system — and the next Secretary of Education. In both Michigan and the U.S. as a whole, there are large, persistent achievement gaps for disadvantaged student groups; rural, suburban, and urban schools with unique (sometimes competing) needs; and a long history of hotly debated education reforms that have had mixed success. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners make sense of the education landscape in the Wolverine State — and what it suggests about the perspective and positions DeVos would bring to the role of Secretary — Bellwether has compiled a comprehensive fact base about the education policy landscape in Michigan that we will release next week after the Inauguration.

In the meantime, here are a few Michigan fast-facts to know as you watch tonight’s hearing:

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity, family income. Source: MISchoolData.org

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity and family income. Source: MISchoolData.org

  • There are over 1.5 million students in Michigan and nearly half of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; more than 33 percent are students of color.
  • Michigan ranks 41st in 4th grade reading performance in the U.S. and 42nd in 4th grade math.
  • 35 percent of Michigan 11th grade students are college-ready according to the SAT; there are substantial gaps in college-readiness rates among black, Hispanic, English language learner, and low-income students.
  • Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with 10 percent of students enrolled in charter schools, about 300 charter schools, and over 40 charter authorizers.
  • Over 70 percent of Michigan charter schools are operated by for-profit education service providers.
  • Detroit is the lowest performing urban school district in the country.
  • Detroit charter schools generally outperform Detroit Public Schools, but there are still concerns about the overall quality of the sector.

Given the above facts, here are a few questions we’d like DeVos to answer at tonight’s confirmation hearing:

  • What should be the role of the federal government in addressing longstanding achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color, like those that exist in Michigan?
  • As you know, Detroit students have struggled academically and gone through numerous failed reform efforts over several decades. Given your work in Detroit, what turnaround strategies would the Department of Education encourage for chronically low-performing school districts?
  • What did you learn from advocating for expanded school choice measures in Michigan and how might you enact those measures at the federal level as Secretary of Education?
  • The presence of multiple charter school authorizers in Michigan has decentralized charter responsibility in the state. What quality-control and accountability measures are necessary for charter school authorizers? What should be the federal role in setting that bar?
  • What has your experience and observation of school choice and school turnaround efforts in Michigan taught you about potential strategies for improving low-performing schools? How would those lessons be applied to this spring’s review of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans?

Betsy DeVos’ hearing begins at 5pm and can be watched here. Check back here tomorrow for a recap of major events (and anything about Michigan education that needs a fact check).

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.

An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.

In yet another illustration of his selective embrace of conservative precepts, President-Elect Trump has proposed an expanded federal role in school choice. His nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, a long-time leader in the school choice movement, reaffirms this campaign commitment and foreshadows a difficult choice for Republicans in Congress.

Betsy DeVos

On the one hand, DeVos could use the purse strings of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to significantly expand the school options available to families. On the other hand, a federal role in another area of education policy – traditionally (and constitutionally) reserved for the states – asks conservative school choice proponents to swallow a bitter pill. The new administration will need congressional Republicans to support its ambitions for school choice, but they should not sacrifice federalism on the altar of school choice.

No matter how carefully designed or who is at the helm, introducing a federal role in national school choice policies is a Pandora’s box. Some believe it would be possible to walk the line. Former Bellwether partner and current AEI resident fellow Andy Smarick recently suggested federal policymakers could use the existing federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) as a model for supporting school choice without a wanton expansion of the federal role.

The CSP is probably the best example of how USED has supported the growth of the charter sector and the closest proxy for a parallel federal investment in school choice. But it’s important not to romanticize it. Along with other high-profile federal grant programs (e.g. Race to the Top, Teacher Incentive Fund, Investing in Innovation), the CSP grant has allowed the federal government to weigh in on questions previously reserved for state and local policymakers.

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What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Election Reflections

Plenty is being said about what the presidential election means and what it says about America’s values. At Bellwether, we deeply value inclusion, equity, and tolerance alongside other democratic values, including liberty and freedom. For us, the election did not change our deep commitment to these values, which is as strong today as it was prior to Election Day.

Something else that hasn’t changed since November 8th? Across America, children are getting up each morning and going to school. They’re still counting on their schools to help them learn and cultivate the knowledge and skills they need to navigate adulthood and lead a happy, fulfilled life full of choices and opportunities. Some of their schools go above and beyond in delivering on this promise. Too many others fall far short especially for students in underserved communities. Addressing these deep and persistent inequities is at the core of what we do at Bellwether.

The election matters, of course, but leaders at the state and local level are still rolling up their sleeves and ready to continue doing the challenging work of expanding education equity. They’re trying to sort out the opportunities and challenges the Every Student Succeeds Act creates and continuing or launching their own initiatives to improve schooling.

Helping them is a primary reason Bellwether exists. And students need our support now more than ever. That’s why we’re staying focused on continuing our work with and alongside state and local organizations and agencies on the ground working for kids. Across our strategy, talent, and policy teams, we offer more than 50 professionals committed to the vision of a world in which race and income are no longer predictors of life outcomes for students. We all work towards an American education system that affords every individual the opportunity to determine their own path and to lead a productive and fulfilling life.

If your work aligns with these values and we can support what you do, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us.

Donald Trump, Public Education, and the Rise of the (New) New Federalists

donald-trump-1818950_1280Many of you might have woken up on November 9 (and perhaps each day thereafter) thinking to yourself “but Donald Trump can’t actually do that, can he?” As far as education goes, the answer is mostly “no, he can’t.” The federal executive branch cannot make binding education policy: it can only offer states funds in exchange for adopting preferred policies.

This is because thankfully there are structural limitations to the president’s power; in high school social studies we called them “checks and balances” and probably thought of them as quaint academic concepts. But these checks and balances — especially the intentional friction between the states and the federal government — will play a big role in education policymaking over the next four years.

Federalism is the name for the concept that the U.S. Constitution grants certain limited powers to the federal government and that all other powers are preserved by the states. Despite the possibly misleading name, it is the philosophy that constrains federal power and it is a fundamental principle of American government. And one of the most visible exercises of that state power is public education. (Others that will likely be very important over the next four years include policing and health care.) Continue reading