By Carolyn Phenicie
Washington, D.C. – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday praised the choice that charter schools provide while cautioning charter advocates that they aren’t a panacea to fix education’s ills and that they should seek out new innovations.
Charter schools were created to provide options for children who weren’t served well by public schools, and early charter leaders weren’t afraid to embrace flexibility and innovation, DeVos told the National Charter Schools Conference.
“But somewhere along the way, in the intervening 26 years and through the process of expansion, we’ve taken the colorful collage of charters and drawn our own set of lines around it to box others out, to mitigate risk, to play it safe. This is not what we set out to do, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help kids,” she told the several hundred attendees gathered in the Washington Convention Center.
Some charter school advocates have been wary of embracing DeVos and President Donald Trump. Both have been strong supporters of charter schools but have also advocated for private school choice, proposed big cuts to other K-12 education spending, and issued policies on immigration and health care that charter advocates fear could harm the students they serve.
In an opening session Monday, National Alliance of Public Charter Schools President Nina Rees encouraged charter advocates to embrace the administration’s support of charters. Charter advocates got behind George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s backing of charters, even if they disagreed with No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, those administrations’ sometimes-controversial education proposals.
“If you don’t speak up and express your views now, we may never have as good a chance to have an impact at the national level,” Rees said Monday.
DeVos several times emphasized that it’s not the moniker that goes before “school” that’s important, but that the school is serving every child’s needs.
“We must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public school works for them,” she said.
Embracing more change and more choices will improve outcomes and opportunities for all students, she said.
Her biggest applause line came when, in urging charter leaders not to “become The Man,” she said that no one needs “500-page charter applications.”
DeVos also had a short Q&A session with education reform advocate and 74 contributor Derrell Bradford, who posed some of his own questions and some submitted by attendees.
Bradford, who heads NYCAN and is executive vice president of 50CAN, asked about some advocates’ concern that DeVos is not committed to protecting students from discrimination.
Earlier this year, she said civil rights protections for students in voucher programs would be left up to states. Last week, she told a Senate subcommittee that federal laws, including protections for students with disabilities, would apply to any federally funded voucher program. Some of those laws, though, include exemptions for religious organizations, and there is no existing federal protection for LGBTQ students.
“The criticisms have been hurtful, I will admit that,” DeVos said. “Anyone who knows me knows that they couldn’t be further from the truth. I think discrimination in any form is wrong.”
The department has been pursuing, and will continue to pursue, investigations into allegations of discrimination, she added.
In one particular moment of levity, DeVos, in answering a question about her favorite teachers, revealed that she played percussion in school bands but “was never allowed to play the timpani, because we had a really good timpanist, so I just didn’t get that opportunity.”
She also said she recalled often being bored in school, stressing the importance of teachers being engaging and curiosity-driven.