Could the next Republican secretary of education soon be visiting Denver Public Schools, a popular destination for the last two Democrats who’ve held the job?
Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet of Colorado extended the invitation to Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing Tuesday. But not before drawing a stark contrast between Denver’s approach to school choice and what has played out in DeVos’s native Michigan.
Bennet said that in Denver, “without exception we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability. And as far I can tell, Detroit has followed the opposite path.”
DeVos said she’d “love to” take Bennet up on the offer to visit Denver, but disputed the former DPS superintendent’s characterization.
In the time he was given to question DeVos, Bennet said he supports giving parents choices among high-quality public schools, including charter schools. However, Bennet said his goal has never been “school choice for its own end,” but high-quality public schools for every child from every neighborhood.
He then cited Denver’s strategy of authorizing charter schools, creating innovation schools that operate with many of the same freedoms as charters, and strengthening traditional schools.
DeVos said she looked forward to “correcting some of the record” about Detroit schools and disputed that Michigan lacks school accountability, characterizing that as “false news.”
The state of Michigan’s charter sector has emerged as central to the debate over DeVos’s qualifications to serve as education secretary. The billionaire philanthropist has been a leading architect of free-market-style school choice policies in Michigan that have proven divisive in Detroit, where the public schools are in dire straits.
Critics assert that Michigan charter schools can open wherever they want, shut down without notice and operate with less oversight than charters in some other parts of the country.
DeVos defenders say she’s created educational opportunities for families that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, noting that Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers.
In an interview Tuesday after the confirmation hearing, current DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Bennet in contrasting the Colorado and Michigan charter sectors’ differences in quality and accountability.
He said that as a result, charter schools are better integrated into the Colorado public school system on issues such as fair enrollment systems and serving special education students.
Recent data show students with mild to moderate special needs are now served equally in district-run schools and charter schools, and Denver’s charter schools lack some of the barriers to entry that distinguish charter schools in other urban districts.
Critics of Denver charter schools say they lack adequate financial transparency, get credit for serving students who are more likely to succeed and don’t offer a true choice because a lack of transportation prevents many families from enrolling.
Boasberg and Bennet have known each other since childhood, and Boasberg joined DPS in 2007 as chief operating officer during Bennet’s tenure as superintendent.
Told of Bennet’s comments, Boasberg said his guess is what Bennet “was trying to point out is that you can have a very strong charter sector in which there is a very clear set of opportunities and accountabilities and very intentional efforts to make sure that our charter schools maintain a high degree of autonomy in their academic program, and at the same time function as public schools in every sense of the word.”
Bennet later lamented the restrictions on the confirmation hearing:
Only one 5-min round of questioning is not enough time to clear concerns on her commitment to high quality public schools.
— Michael F. Bennet (@SenBennetCO) January 18, 2017
Outgoing Secretary of Education John King and his predecessor, Arne Duncan, both visited Denver schools.
Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.