Last Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the conservative think-tank Washington Policy Center in Bellevue. She reinforced her support for charter schools, usually privately-owned schools operating independently of public schools that receive government funding. Some view charter schools as a public asset while others believe they give students more power over their education.
DeVos’s 30-minute speech began with explaining how she was connected to Washington state, since her son-in-law is from Mukilteo. After commending the Washington Policy Center on challenging Olympia politicians to create innovative solutions, DeVos discussed how charter schools positively impacted three exemplars.
The first one was Austin, who felt bored in public school because of the lack of rigor, so his mother enrolled him in a charter school. The second one was Sandeep, who could not focus in school from his trauma as a child, so his guardians enrolled him in an online public school. Finally, DeVos played a video of Denisha, a child who failed third grade twice, but excelled in a Christian private school and now holds a masters’ degree.
DeVos continued to attack the public education system, saying it yielded “average” results. She emphasized the benefits of individualized learning in charter schools.
Veronica Cook of Shoreline cheers with other protesters outside of the Hyatt Regency where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was scheduled to speak at the Washington Policy Center’s annual gala on Friday. (Source: KUOW PHOTO/MEGAN FARMER)
Hundreds of protestors, mostly made up of students and educators, held up signs such as “Make America Think Again” and “Fully Fund Education” in response to DeVos’s comments. One educator said, “we just oppose the message Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration’s agenda are bringing to our state. And to her we will say your values don’t fit into our state values that voters have approved time and time again for public schools. And those values don’t fit into our classrooms where we serve every single student.” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Bellevue mayor John Stokes, and King County Executive Dow Constantine also spoke at the protest. They viewed charter schools as a threat to public education.
A few counter-protesters showed up holding signs including “Choose Your School” and “Get the Fed Out of Ed.”
So, if charter schools just give students more choices about their education, why were there so many protests?
Schools in Washington often have gifted education programs similar to the Bellevue School District’s, so students like Austin can have their learning desires met by public schools. Some Washingtonians believe the claims DeVos made were broad generalizations about the country rather than focused, localized comments.
Additionally, some reports show that charter schools can lead to re-segregation. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions, so they cannot discriminate by race or gender. However, since charter schools are often made for targeted groups (e.g. students who need more attention vs. students who are not challenged by their classes), they often segregate students further. To put this in perspective, imagine if the BSD gifted education program and general education program were separated into different schools. This might lead to a greater divide between ethnicities and socioeconomic classes.
Charter schools are also often run by the private sector, so they may lack the transparency and accountability guaranteed by normal public schools. “Owners” of charter schools can make decisions without the presence of a public-school board or elected representatives of a school district.
However, the main argument against charter schools is that they take money away from public schools. Supporters of Washington’s current public education system believe that the current system best educates students, and charter schools would just divert time, money, and resources away from public schools. It is fiscally ineffective to invest in both charter and traditional public schools.
Political Cartoon about Charter Schools. (Source: Sky Dancing Blog)
While it is important to consider the undeniable successes of charter schools, as in the three cases DeVos mentioned, it is also important to consider the overall benefit to society of either form of schooling. Our common goal is to be better than “average,” as DeVos mentioned, but a divisive, partisan debate looms ahead on whether that can be best solved by the traditional or charter schooling system.