Tag Archives: School Choice

Choice is Coming – But for Pre-K, It’s Already Here

Betsy DeVos is top-of-mind right now, particularly after her tense confirmation hearing on Tuesday night. Front and center in most of these conversations is DeVos’ strong support for school choice. What’s getting little attention, however, is what DeVos could accomplish on early childhood issues.3969866244_b02e13b9fb_o

We don’t know much about DeVos’ views on early education, but I’m personally hopeful that she takes a lesson from her home state: Michigan has a strong state-funded pre-k program that utilizes “diverse delivery.” “Diverse delivery” is another way of saying “school choice for early childhood.” In this system, parents of young children pick from a range of early childhood providers — including for-profit centers, churches, nonprofit community-based organizations, and school districts — based on whatever factors they deem most important. And in Michigan, unlike many other states, charter schools are included in the pre-k program. That model is something DeVos should bring to the national stage.

Michigan’s state-funded preschool program, the Great Start Readiness Program (GSRP), is a good example of diverse delivery in action. Funding for the program goes to intermediate school districts (ISDs); ISDs then contract with a variety of providers, all of which must meet a state-determined standard of quality, to actually serve preschool children. GSRP is targeted to families that make less than 250% of the federal poverty level, so if children are eligible to participate, their parents can send them to any GSRP center that has space for them.

And research suggests that Michigan’s program is effective. A 2005 study of five states, including Michigan, showed that children who participated in state-funded preschool had better vocabulary, early math skills, and understanding of print concepts than children who did not attend. GSRP is also growing. Between 2013 and 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder upped the investment in GSRP by $130 million. The program currently serves 32 percent of four-year-olds in the state, more than 35 other states.

And many of those children are served in charter school pre-k programs. Michigan is one of the more hospitable states for charter schools to serve preschoolers. In fact, Michigan has 76 charter schools that serve preschoolers, which is the fourth highest in the country behind California, Florida, and Texas.

This type of charter school/pre-k synergy is rare even though most states already have pre-k systems that incorporate a range of public providers. Diverse delivery may be old news in the early childhood world, but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to certain providers — specifically charter schools. States that have offered pre-k choice for decades struggle with how to best incorporate charter schools as an early childhood option for parents.

Even so, early childhood is already more supportive of choice in ways that are controversial in K-12 — as evidenced by Tuesday’s hearing . In a column for U.S. News earlier this month, Andy Rotherham astutely noted that with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the country’s education agenda, “More choice is coming to education — it’s a question of when and how rather than if.” DeVos should take a cue from Michigan and start by expanding choice in early childhood.

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

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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Four (or More) Ideas for Trump’s Education Agenda

It’s over. Finally. Now we all return to calm, reasoned litigation of important issues and cat videos, right? Just kidding, I never liked cat videos anyway.

But seriously, now Donald Trump must shift attention away from winning the election to the business of governing. The President-elect and his transition team must translate all those vague platitudes and pledges to fix our nation’s ills into actual policies and plans, and then select people to lead those efforts.donald-trump-1332922_640

This summer after the conventions, Bellwether published a collection of 16 education policy ideas for the next president. The collection ranges in topics and ideological perspectives — its intention was to provide actionable ideas that could appeal to either campaign and jump start the creation of an education agenda no matter who prevailed on November 8.

Now that we know who will occupy the oval office in January, the next question is how will President-elect Trump’s plans for education shape up.

Throughout the election, the Trump campaign’s primary education focus was school choice. Based on that priority, we think several 16 for 16 suggestions would align well with a Trump administration education agenda centered on creating more education options and empowering families:

  1. Providing federal support to spur development of a range of school options across sectors, public and private (Chapter 12)
  2. Doubling down on the successes of the Charter School Program to seed more autonomous public schools (Chapter 1)
  3. Adapting the successful federal incentives program that drives private investment and development of affordable housing to encourage private investment in charter school facilities (Chapter 10)
  4. Empowering families to create and influence schools that meet their children’s and their communities’ particular needs (Chapter 15)

There are a host of other ideas in our collection that would enable better federal support for students in all our public schools — ranging from the expansion of proven mentoring programs to healthier food for students in the federal government’s multi-billion dollar National School Lunch program. Some ideas are nuts and bolts, good government plays (improving the way the Department of Education holds grantees accountable for results), while others are more cutting edge and innovative (bringing the technology underpinning Bitcoin into the education data space). 

The bottom line is there’s a lot of food for thought to fill in the blanks left from an election cycle that was focused elsewhere. We invite President-elect Trump and his transition team to take a look as they develop the next generation of federal education priorities — the 16 for 16 contributors have teed up a rolling start.

5 Things the Pence Pick Could Mean for the Future of Federal Education Policy

Read more live coverage of #EDlection2016 via Bellwether and The 74’s Convention Live Blog.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence talk to “60 Minutes.” Photo: CBS News

The Veep-stakes are over! The pick is in. Mike Pence, the sitting Governor of Indiana, will run as Trump’s Vice President. Although he has only been Governor for a few years, Pence also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Putting those records together, we can get a sense of what the Pence pick could mean for public education.

  • Tough sledding for civil rights. Pence’s stance on equal rights is pretty clear. Everyone remembers the law he signed permitting individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. So, many federal student protections could be in jeopardy, including President Obama’s executive action on bathroom use for transgender students. In a similar vein, Pence strongly supports states’ rights and local control. He likely would advocate for reducing (perhaps even further) the federal footprint in education. This is bad news for low-income students and students of color who frequently receive low-quality educations and depend on federal support.
  • Funding redistribution (but not to support low-income students). If his most recent budget in Indiana is any indication, Pence certainly feels that something needs to be done to improve school funding in this country. Unfortunately, however, he seems to think wealthier districts need an even bigger slice of the school funding pie.
  • Charter expansion. In addition to increasing funding for charters broadly, Pence also supported the so-called “Freedom to Teach” bill. The idea is to help provide teachers with the flexibility they need to innovate in their classrooms. Some teachers and union representatives argue that they already have that freedom. Instead, they believe that the bill is designed to limit union power and invite private entities to run public schools.
  • Vouchers Vouchers Vouchers. For years Pence has been a vocal proponent of school vouchers and expanding the use of public funds to pay for private education. Last year he helped to shepherd a bill to raise the voucher limit on funds available for elementary school students. A Trump/Pence White House may provide the strongest support for expanding voucher programs in decades.
  • Preschool a priority (kind of). It’s a far cry from universal pre-K, but Pence was able to expand Indiana’s pre-school program. He also recently committed to expanding the program further with or without federal support. It is important to note, however, that Pence previously refused millions of dollars of federal support, and only seemed interested in them now that he is up for reelection. 

In education policy, Pence sticks to the party-line. For that reason, his selection should make many conservatives happy. But students and teachers should be on high alert. In a Trump/Pence White House, it would take a watchful eye and strong advocacy to preserve critical federal protections for vulnerable students, ensure low-income students get their fair share of funding, and prioritize students’ needs over states’ rights.