This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Some of the most prominent charter proponents in Philadelphia don’t have an opinion they are willing to share about Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee to be the U.S. secretary of education.
Those who did have something to say were not all unabashed fans.
DeVos, a billionaire and major donor to mostly Republican and conservative causes who has never been an educator, is not only a staunch supporter of charter expansion, but also strongly favors vouchers for children to attend private and religious schools.
Calls from the Notebook since DeVos’ confirmation hearing to several charter operators and advocates asking for their opinion on DeVos and their hopes for her leadership were either not answered or answered with a preference not to comment. Among those contacted were Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership; Mike Wang of PSP’s lobbying arm, Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners; Scott Gordon of Mastery Charter School; and Marc Mannella of KIPP Philadelphia.
A few others offered opinions – some strongly in support, but not all.
“I don’t see her as not qualified,” said David Hardy, CEO of Boys’ Latin Charter School.
Hardy has worked with DeVos’ organization, American Federation for Children. “I think experience may be overrated for what she needs to do,” he said.
But Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery-Shoemaker, had concerns, especially about whether she would support holding charters accountable for student outcomes. In Detroit, she opposed legislation imposing strong charter oversight.
“If you don’t push accountability as a lockstep with choice, then it’s a false choice” for low-income parents of color who have long been ill-served by traditional public schools, he said.
At DeVos’ confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 17, she got generally low marks for her performance, which showed significant gaps in knowledge about education policy – not to mention unresolved issues of potential conflicts of interest. Her ethics report was not completed until three days after that hearing.
Under pressure from Democrats after the ethics report became public, committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee postponed the scheduled vote on her confirmation for a week, from this Tuesday to Jan. 31. Democrats on the committee are asking for a second opportunity to question her. (UPDATE: 1/24: Sen. Lamar Alexander has denied the request.)
The ethics review showed myriad entanglements with firms that have or have had contracts with the Department of Education, including one that collects student loan debts. Although she has promised to clear up all conflicts of interest, she also has investments in corporations that the department regulates, including one, Performant, that runs for-profit colleges.
At the hearing, mostly under intense questioning from Democratic senators, DeVos appeared not to realize that federal law protected the rights of students with disabilities in public schools, and she was unfamiliar with an important concept in school evaluation – whether schools should be judged on their overall student proficiency rates in math and reading, or on the rate of student growth in those subjects.
And in an exchange with Tim Kaine, the Democratic senator from Virginia who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, she also wouldn’t say directly that all schools that receive public money, including charter schools, should be held equally accountable.
She acknowledged under questioning from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate, that she and her family had probably donated $200 million to Republicans and their causes.
In other cities, including New York, prominent figures in the charter movement issued statements supporting her, most prominently Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Success Charter network and a Clinton backer during the presidential campaign.
Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, a pro-charter advocacy group, and Robert Fayfich of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools spoke in favor of her nomination when asked.
Cetel and Fayfich weren’t concerned about DeVos’ lack of experience in education. They said that what is important is who DeVos puts in place to run the department.
“Those are the people who are actually going to drive issues,” Fayfich said.
Cetel said that she "needs to surround herself with a team of accomplished educational leaders" and has the network and background to do that.
El-Mekki, on the other hand, said experience is important.
“If you’re going to be the leader of public schools from the federal government angle, you have to ensure that you have deep content knowledge around policies, best practices, and what varying styles are to address the needs of kids,” he said. “And I think without that, we would put our kids at risk. Our community of educators and families are going to have to work to make sure she is held accountable and the administration is held accountable to do right by students."
Fayfich also suggested, as did Hardy, that DeVos isn’t opposed to charter accountability. Instead, they said, she was signaling at her hearing under the rapid-fire questioning (senators only had one five-minute round each) that accountability measures need to be flexible to accommodate different kinds of schools – a charter school focused on chronic truants vs. an academic magnet school, Fayfich suggested as an example.
“Both districts and charters are spending public money, and they need to be accountable for performance and financial stewardship,” Fayfich said. “But one size doesn’t fit all, and accountability has to be relative to the mission.”
Hardy also said that there is a line between reasonable accountability and over-regulation of charters, and he isn’t sure that the Detroit measure she opposed didn’t fit into the category of over-regulation. In Philadelphia, he maintained, some charter accountability measures “have nothing to do with making schools better or helping children.”
El-Mekki, though, explained his skepticism regarding DeVos’ position by referring to longstanding failures to demand high standards from schools that serve mostly Black and Brown children.
“I think our communities can’t afford choice that’s divorced from accountability,” he said.
El-Mekki, who was a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the Department of Education under the Obama administration, said he is also worried about the overall racist and misogynistic rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and a total lack of emphasis by him or DeVos on equity and adequacy of resources for all students.
Cetel, head of PennCAN, agrees with El-Mekki that it is necessary to balance school choice and accountability. But, he noted, the power of the federal government over states has lessened with the demise of the federal No Child Left Behind law regulating K-12 education and the enactment of its successor law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
“States drive policy,” Cetel said. Without more details on what DeVos actually plans to do to inject the federal government into areas like choice and the use of Title I dollars, “it is impossible to oppose or support her. It’s impossible to start criticizing until we know what the policies will be.”
As to DeVos’ overall fitness for the position, Cetel said that her “gaffes,” including the widely ridiculed one that schools in Wyoming might need guns to protect against grizzly bears, were byproducts of her strong commitment to federalism and letting states decide the most important policy issues.
“DeVos’ chosen principles likely mean she will be cautious about federal overreach and defer to the states,” he said. The battles most critical to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia will be in Harrisburg, he said.
On her overall performance at the hearing, Cetel said: “She’s a philanthropist and an advocate, not a policy wonk. It’s appropriate at a [confirmation] hearing to punt on any question that asks you to commit.”
Fayfich’s organization sent a letter to charter schools asking them to send letters to Alexander supporting her nomination.
The board president of one of Philadelphia’s most successful charter schools, Folk Arts Cultural Treasures (FACTS), responded. But Edmund Nakawatase’s letter opposed her nomination. FACTS, in Chinatown, has been designated as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education
“To me, Betsy DeVos represents forces that seek to undermine support for public education, couched in language of ‘choice’ and promoting charter schools as some kind of ultimate model for displacing public investment in public education,” he wrote. Nakawatase stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the FACTS board.
“I believe that this approach, advocated by DeVos, is a serious mistake.”
Nakawatase went on to criticize the Pennsylvania legislature for “almost mandating charter schools without thoughtful planning and direction. The result has been a zero sum game where approval of new charters undermines resources for existing schools.”
He concluded: “My opposition to Betsy DeVos is not personal. It is political in the fullest sense; she represents a body of ideas indicated by her past work and advocacy that I believe does serious damage to public education. I don’t believe she should be permitted to do more damage as Secretary of Education.”
Freelancer Bill Hangley Jr. contributed to this article.