Secretary v. secretary

Arne Duncan criticizes Betsy DeVos on civil rights, says she hasn’t asked for his advice

PHOTO: Chuck Kennedy/The White House

When Arne Duncan became U.S. Secretary of Education, he asked predecessors of both parties for advice. That’s why he’s disappointed that he hasn’t gotten a similar call from the new secretary, Betsy DeVos.

“I reached out to everybody, not as a courtesy but because I had so much to learn — whether it was Secretary Riley who happened to serve a Democratic president or whether it was Secretary Spellings or Rod Paige,” both of the George W. Bush administration, Duncan said. “You’re going to agree on some things and disagree on others, but at the end of the day you’re all there for the same reason, theoretically.”

“What I learned from them was invaluable,” he said.

Duncan has become a sharp critic of DeVos’s tenure to date, especially the education department’s decision to rescind guidance related to transgender students and the Trump administration’s budget proposal. He’s gone so far as to tell charter leaders to refuse federal charter dollars if they came alongside large cuts to all public schools. He said that it would amount to “blood money.”

The budget has also been criticized by DeVos’s immediate predecessor, John King.

“Any rollback on rights — whether it’s special needs kids, LGBT kids, any rollback in terms of Title IX enforcement, civil rights enforcement — that’s a little mind-boggling to me, hard to understand, hard to justify,” said Duncan, who is now a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, working with young men to reduce gun violence in Chicago. (The Emerson Collective, through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, supports Chalkbeat.)

Liz Hill, the Department of Education’s press secretary, defended the department’s Office of Civil Rights and DeVos’s record in a statement.

“During the prior administration, [the Office of Civil Rights’] reputation as a fair and neutral enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws suffered as it sacrificed timely, neutral adjudications of individual complaints in favor of data collection efforts. Under this system, too many students waited months and even years for adjudication. That will not be the case under this Administration,” Hill said. “The Secretary’s commitment to OCR’s mission is unwavering and the office will defend all students to the fullest extent possible under the law.”

Meanwhile, as secretary, DeVos has issued a number of criticisms of the Obama administration, including Duncan’s school turnaround initiative. The fact that a federal study did not find benefits of the expensive program has become a favorite talking point of DeVos.

Sniping between a former Obama administration official and a Trump cabinet head would normally be unremarkable. But Duncan’s comments are more complicated because the education reform movement — including the expansion of charter schools and efforts to hold schools and teachers responsible for student test scores — has long held a bipartisan imprimatur.

Duncan, in particular, has received praised from the likes of Republicans Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Lamar Alexander. (Many conservatives, though, soured on his approach, arguing that he engaged in federal overreach by incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core standards, among other moves.)

And Duncan, like DeVos, has supported the growth of charter schools. His signature initiative, Race to the Top, pushed states to lift or eliminate caps on charter schools. DeVos’s home state of Michigan, for instance, passed a 2010 law that expanded charters and allowed for the creation of two fully virtual schools in order to compete for federal money.

Duncan tried to distinguish his position on charter schools from DeVos’s.

“When you just focus on proliferation or growth rather than on quality, you absolutely hurt the movement,” he said. “I am not a supporter of charters; I’m a supporter of high-quality charters.”

Some say that Duncan’s policies haven’t always led to that — like in Michigan, where critics say the charter sector has lacked oversight and produced chaos. Last year, John King described the performance of Michigan charter schools as “uneven.”

Does Duncan have any regrets about his role in expanding charters?

No, Duncan said, pointing to a speech he gave in 2013 to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools where he reiterated his support for the charter movement but challenged its leaders to be “more vocal and to step out on charter schools that weren’t succeeding, bad charter schools.”

When DeVos spoke to same group earlier this year, she issued a different challenge, encouraging charter leaders not to see themselves as the best solution, but to focus on school choice more broadly. She remained mum on to what extent charters should be held accountable for their academic performance.

Duncan says he believes there should be four overarching national goals for education: to expand “high-quality” pre-kindergarten; continue to improve high school graduation rates; ensure graduates are ready for college and careers; and “lead the world in college completion rates.”

“I haven’t heard one sentence from this administration about any of those goals; it’s lot of small-ball stuff,” he said.

In response, Hill pointed to DeVos’s priorities. “The Secretary is championing a robust agenda to reduce the federal role in education, expand school choice and empower parents,” she said, along with making changes to the Higher Education Act and federal student aid to “better serve students and taxpayers.”

However, DeVos may soon have one thing in common with Duncan: The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, demanded Duncan resign in 2014. Earlier this year, NEA issued a letter to DeVos listing a number of concerns. If she does not address them by Sept. 1, the group will call on her to resign, too.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”