DeVos Wasn't Wrong About Choice and Accessibility
It’s been a while since we last talked, hasn’t it? I apologize for that. The last few weeks have been absolutely packed with edu-stuff. But I’m back now, and what better way is there to rekindle old fires than to tackle a controversial issue? And what could be more controversial in education right now that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?
I wrote about the unhinged shrieking over DeVos following her confirmation hearing. Shortly thereafter, she was confirmed as secretary of education on a historically narrow vote. The shrieking only intensified, so my policy friend Ross Izard used an editorial in The Hill to point out the Left’s rather stark philosophical inconsistency when it comes to ambitious, successful women in politics. As Ross wrote, the Left appears to believe that “Women are to be empowered—unless they disagree with progressive positions.”
The furor over DeVos receded somewhat as the healthcare debacle and President Trump’s newly declared war on conservative congressional leaders took center stage. But then, a statement by Secretary DeVos about Denver’s top ranking in the Brooking Institution’s latest Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI) reignited the fire in earnest. Here’s the full video of DeVos’s remarks at Brookings for those who are interested in watching it. The statement in question begins at roughly the 29-minute marker.
For those who’d rather just read what terrible, awful, no-good things DeVos said, here’s a full transcript of her remarks. Make sure you note all the evil talk about not favoring one type of choice over another, empowering parents to choose the right educational fit for their children, and (as I always preach) focusing on children rather than institutions. But all those horrible things notwithstanding, the part that landed her in hot water was this:
Meanwhile, Denver scored well because the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.
Russ has mentioned this, but I think it’s worth repeating that, even though a district may place well on the competition index, the letter grade does not necessarily reflect the state of education within that district.
The benefits of making options “accessible” are cancelled out when you don’t have a full menu of options.
Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter, just as accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.
Those simple, tame words got folks into a big kerfuffle. The Denver Post ran a story accusing DeVos of “slamming” Denver, and Chalkbeat Colorado also wrote it up. Chalkbeat then ran a separate story featuring indignant tweets (remember when politics wasn’t conducted on Twitter?) from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who apparently sensed an opportunity to continue the Denver-based spat he began with DeVos during her confirmation hearing. Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg issued a statement saying, in part:
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.
Through all of this political maneuvering, I haven’t seen anyone attempt to take a step back and ask a simple question: Is there any merit to what DeVos is saying? I believe that answer is yes.
At about this time last year, I wrote about some interesting methodological hang-ups in Brookings ECCI rating system. In particular, I lamented the fact that the system tends to favor private school choice programs that are subject to heavy-handed regulation—a design decision that research indicates can produce adverse results. There are a number of other potential problems with the ECCI ratings, as well; no rating system is perfect. So, even though DeVos didn’t come at the discussion from the same angle I did last year, she’s not wrong to caution against simply taking an ECCI letter grade as the full picture of educational quality in any given district.
More importantly, DeVos’s statements on the interdependence of choice and access ring true. Complete access means little without meaningful choices to access. And meaningful choices mean little if no one can access them. That seems like common sense to me, but it was apparently taken as a slight by Denver because it implies that parents don’t have as much choice as they might desire—and that Denver should consider the private sector as a way to address that demand.
I can appreciate Denver’s sensitivity on this. They probably felt a little like the folks from La La Land at the Academy Awards back in February. Remember that? Here’s a video to remind you:
But setting Denver’s pride aside, DeVos wasn’t wrong to say that the district has room to grow when it comes to educational choice. Certainly, the district is doing good things when it comes to empowering parents to choose and apply for public schools. I’ve said as much. But choosing and applying are only part of the equation. Actually getting in is the other part.
Back in 2014, I wrote about a report on choice options in Denver and other major cities. The report largely echoed kudos to Denver for the district’s streamlined enrollment process and transportation options, and it’s stuffed with interesting data. But, importantly, the report also opens with a story about Joe Jiminez, a Denver parent with a daughter about to enter middle school. Seeing that his quality neighborhood options were limited, Joe began to look around. He found some good schools, marked his top three choices on Denver’s choice application, and felt pretty good. Then this happened:
… [W]hen school system officials ran the lottery in the spring, [Joe] discovered his daughter didn’t get into any of her options, leaving her stuck in her low-performing neighborhood school. “I think the [enrollment] process was pretty self-explanatory. It was the end result that was pretty disappointing…the good schools all have waiting lists.” The result left Joe feeling confused and angry: his family had invested considerable effort navigating their city’s system of public school choice, but came away feeling no better off because of it.
Public schools work for a great many families. In particular, the charter sector is doing great work in Colorado. But the fact remains that demand for options is significantly outpacing the supply of high-quality seats. Many of the best public schools in Denver and other districts have long waiting lists or deep lottery pools that serve as barriers to parents like Joe. Though reliable estimates of the true number of individual children on these waiting lists are hard to come by because parents often put their names on multiple lists, it is safe to say that thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of Colorado students have not been able to access the educational options they need. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 seats sit empty in Colorado private schools, most of which are located in or around the Denver Metro Area.
If you don’t believe there’s an opportunity in that situation to meet parental demand for high-quality educational options while providing kids with the excellent education they deserve, you aren’t being honest with yourself. You are focusing on institutions rather than children, and that is not a productive mindset if our goal is to produce the best possible outcomes for kids.
Perhaps DeVos could have made her point more gently or in a different context—politics is politics, after all—but the fact remains that she isn’t wrong to say that maximum choice and maximum accessibility are inextricably linked. And she’s not wrong to point out that Denver’s students would benefit from a well-designed private school choice program. So please, put down that tomato and consider the other side of the story.