Monday Reading List: Debating Segregation and the City of Denver vs. DeVos

The editorial page of The Baltimore Sun is following the Maryland state senate, as one legislator raises the issue of schools segregation:

... Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, tried to add an amendment to an education policy bill to address, at least in a small way, the socio-economic and racial segregation that are prevalent in Maryland's schools. It was sometime after 10:30 that night, and senators, who had been in session for hours, were already a little punchy when Mr. Ferguson began talking about the massive barrier such segregation poses to the state's efforts to ensure a good public education for all children ... In fact, he hadn't even gotten through presenting his idea when Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, interjected to ask a question: "Ah, this would create Baltimore City-Baltimore County school districts?" Mr. Ferguson didn't get far in explaining that no, that wasn't exactly what he was talking about before Sen. James Brochin, another Baltimore County Democrat, rose to oppose him, arguing that Baltimore County schools are already overrun by city kids sneaking in.

The discussion went "downhill" from there, according to the editors. The tension captured in the coverage of this debate is a primer in how privilege and power collude to keep schools segregated. Wealthier communities behave as if public schools are tantamount to their personal property; moreover, they think that sharing their schools will inevitably diminish the value of those institutions.

Elsewhere last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a speech at The Brookings Institution, during which she criticized the Denver Public Schools. Sarah Darville has the story in The Denver Post:

... DeVos called out Denver as an example of a district that appears to be choice-friendly — but actually lacks sufficient options for families. A new Brookings report gave the city the top score for school choice, citing the unified application process that allows families to consider charter and district-run schools at the same time. But DeVos implied that without vouchers to pay for private schools (something Colorado’s state Supreme Court has twice ruled unconstitutional) and a sufficient supply of charter schools, Denver’s application process amounts to an optical illusion.

Tom Boasberg, the Denver superintendent, fired back:

"We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter ... A core principle in Denver and one of the main reasons we rank no. 1 nationally in school choice is that we ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district-run and charter schools, where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability."

Then U.S. Senator Michael Bennet piled on to the Secretary:

The Democrat took to Twitter to challenge DeVos’s implication that choices in Denver are lacking because students may not use private school vouchers or don’t have enough charter schools from which to choose. Bennet was superintendent of DPS before being appointed to the Senate in 2009. Under his leadership, the urban school district launched a series of school reforms that remain in place today. More than a quarter of the district’s schools are charter schools, which receive public tax dollars but are run independently of the school district.

The broader story here is the growing rift among education policymakers around school choice. Those who support choice for ideological reasons (accountability be damned!) are in the DeVos camp, cheering on the voucher plan. Bennet, Boasberg, and others support public schooling options that offer innovation and diversity for families, but their support is tethered to the condition that those options produce - you know - results.

Secretary DeVos has made vouchers a central part of her rhetoric about how states should use federal dollars. Does she have the authority to require that, though? Alyson Klein at Education Week says "no":

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told an audience at the Brookings Institution Wednesday that she wouldn't necessarily approve every state's plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act right off the bat.  And at the same event, she continued to push her favorite policy: school choice ... the juxtaposition still had some folks nervous, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who told Politico that she hopes DeVos "clarifies her comments and makes it clear that she does not plan to threaten states or hold their proposals hostage unless they conform to her privatization agenda" ... Could DeVos legally reject a state's plan because it didn't include choice, even if she wanted to? ... Both Democrats and Republicans who worked on ESSA say doing that would violate the long, long list of prohibitions on the Education Department's authority in the law, one of which says the secretary can't tell states what kinds of interventions they can or can't use with their lowest-performing schools.

When the Obama administration imposed stricter conditions on federal funding, some republicans cried foul. Now that the Trump administration is flirting with similar restrictions - but with a different ideological bent - democrats are predictably rebelling. This episode is a good reminder that, whenever you deviate from an institutional norm, you should consider the fact that your biggest political opponent is now liberated to violate that same norm with impunity. Have a great week!