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President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. / Image via Shutterstock

In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump set the table for a partisan battle over school choice.

Having focused his campaign on immigration and border security, education issues barely received a passing mention. When he did mention education, his plans seemed to hinge on one topic: greater support and resources for charter schools and vouchers.

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Not long after taking office, Trump appeared to double down on his ideas when he appointed Betsy DeVos — a wealthy Republican philanthropist and school choice champion — as his new education secretary. From the very beginning, DeVos drew fire from Democrats, teachers unions and even so-called “education reformers” who otherwise supported school choice and some of the same policies DeVos espoused.

Over the past year, DeVos has become no less controversial a figure. That controversy came to a boil this week after 60 Minutes aired an interview with DeVos in which the education security fielded questions on school choice, discipline and guns in the classroom.

DeVos expressed support for arming teachers, but said she couldn’t imagine her own first grade teacher carrying a gun. She stumbled through answers about the quality of education in Michigan, her home state. She said she hasn’t intentionally visited struggling schools. In short, she came off as wildly unprepared for her job — and she was widely criticized for it.

But through the criticism, one feature stood out — something that’s been lurking ever since Trump first mentioned vouchers and charter schools on the campaign trail: DeVos, via Trump’s administration, has become synonymous with school choice. And school choice has come to mean vouchers, charter schools and the privatization of public schools.

There’s a problem with the narrative, though. School choice is much broader than vouchers, which don’t exist in California, and charter schools, which were first introduced to California in 1992 as an alternative to vouchers.

In San Diego Unified, school choice has existed for decades as a way to give parents the option of sending their kids to schools outside of the neighborhoods where they reside. In 2016, about 42 percent of parents in the district took advantage of the program, roughly the same percentage as families who did so in 2011, when the district first ramped up its efforts to encourage parents to remain in their assigned schools.

To encourage racial integration, San Diego Unified in the ‘70s established magnet schools, which are usually structured around a specialty theme, like music or a foreign language, and draw students from all neighborhoods. This is also school choice. And some evidence suggests taking away these options could actually make district schools more segregated.

But these options aren’t really what critics are talking about when they voice opposition to school choice. In San Diego, charter schools usually land in the crosshairs.

The basic argument against charter schools — which are publicly funded but to a certain extent, independently run — goes something like this: Because money is tied to students, school districts lose money when students transfer to charter schools. District schools then have less money and fewer resources to educate students.

Add to it a perception that charter school operators are privatizing education for profit, and charter schools can deny entrance to students they don’t want, and you’ve got a recipe for a fight. (Every charter school leader will deny both accusations; all charter schools in San Diego County are non-profit and discriminatory admission processes are illegal.)

But here again, these aren’t new arguments. They’ve just taken on new texture and emotional resonance with DeVos.

I wanted to hear from a few local charter school leaders if and how they’ve noticed the conversation shift in the past year, and how they think the new administration could impact their schools.

Weighing in are Jon Dean, superintendent for The O’Farrell Charter School; Demi Brown, executive director of Empower Charter School; and Christine Kuglen, director of Innovations Academy. Here’s some of what they had to say:

How have you seen the conversation around charters schools or school choice shift in the past year or so?

Demi Brown: I’m not hearing so much about vouchers, but I notice we do get lumped into this conversation about privatization. And the misinformation that I’ve seen seems to be coming from people who others consider to be credible — people within the Democratic Party, or the teachers union.

Every charter school in San Diego is a nonprofit. If I was an advocate for public schools, and I heard there were these schools that could use public money and operate without accountability, that would infuriate me, too. But it’s a huge misperception. It’s this false rhetoric that’s being repeated.

I definitely think that it’s become a more partisan issue under the current administration. People forget the two previous administrations — Republican and Democratic — supported charter schools.

Jon Dean: The polarization has gotten a little bit worse, but it’s done specifically by anti-charter school people who are trying to lump charter schools in with school vouchers. They’re totally different. You have to remember that charter schools were the solution, the alternative to vouchers. But it behooves the opposition to describe them as the same thing.

Christine Kuglen: My perception of the outside world — especially the rhetoric from Democrats — is that people want to blame charter schools for all kinds of problems. Don’t get me wrong, there are some bad apples — there’s corruption, people stealing money. That’s not anything different than what happens in district schools, but when charter schools do it, the reaction is that we need close all charter schools.

It’s not that I have a problem with the Democratic Party. It’s the hyper-defensiveness that comes from being aligned with the school district and labor union. And the mentality of the school district is that they can treat kids as a given. I think if we all had more of the mindset that we all had to earn our students, we’d be in a better place.

What do you think has been missed or misrepresented in the conversation?

Brown: I can’t stress enough that charter schools are public schools, open to all. School choice offers options to students who don’t live next to quality school. And I’m concerned that some people are taking the story from Michigan and other states and applying it across the board. But California has its own story when it comes to charter schools.

When Betsy DeVos came to the center of the conversation, I thought, ‘That’s not how we work in California.’ Our accountability system for charter schools is rigorous. Ultimately, the kids are the ones who suffer when we make this a partisan issue. I think that both parties can agree that we want high quality options for all children.

Dean: School choice doesn’t just mean charter schools. It means magnet schools and schools in different neighborhoods. Charter schools don’t need to be an enemy of traditional schools; they need to be a partner. They need to learn from each other.

I always say a school district is like a big oil tanker. A charter school is more like a speed boat. It can change direction a lot quicker if something isn’t working. I think with charter schools, kids really are put first. Traditional schools do that to some extent, but a lot of the efforts are swallowed up by bureaucracy.

Kuglen: The biggest myth is the idea that people are cherry picking students and denying entrance to students with special needs. About 20 percent of students at our school have disabilities. Every charter school I know has about the same percentage of students with special needs as the district average, and some of them attract a lot more. But I think the public falls for this because they don’t understand how it works.

Do you think DeVos will be good or bad for charter school movement in California?

Dean: I don’t know if it will be either good or bad. It’s sort of a non-issue to me. Really the life and death of charter schools depends on the state legislature and governor’s office. I don’t believe the Trump administration is really going to have the capacity to deal with charter schools and district schools.

Brown: I think it still stands to be seen. In regards to DeVos, I think when anyone speaks on a topic that they’re not educated on, it doesn’t reflect well on that topic. I haven’t yet seen anything specific from her so far to make me feel more empowered as a charter school leader.


The lede of a New York Times story this week captured it eloquently: “A month ago, hundreds of teenagers ran for their lives from the hallways and classrooms of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and staff had been shot to death. On Wednesday, driven by the conviction that they should never have to run from guns again, they walked.”

So did their peers. Thousands of students from New York to San Diego walked out of school in a coordinated call for more gun control. Students in some school districts defied direction from school officials to join the walk out. Others did so with support from administration.

San Diego Unified, for its part, sought a kind of middle ground. Superintendent Cindy Marten advised principals to let student voices be heard — but also encourage them to do it on school grounds. Some took the advice, some didn’t.

To see the action, I cruised over to San Diego High, where students from SD High, East Village High School and City College students had gathered. Here’s some of what they had to say…

“Never again,” said Jasmine Alas, senior at East Village High. / Photo by Mario Koran
“We’re the ones getting shot. If anybody understands what’s happening, it’s us,” said Andrew Lopez, freshman at San Diego High. / Photo by Mario Koran
“School shouldn’t be a place where we worry that we’re going to get shot up. And we do worry. All the time,” – students from East Vallage High

In Other News…

It’s official: Current San Diego Unified school board members Kevin Beiser and Mike McQuary will again run unopposed in this year’s election.

McQuary strolled onto the school board unopposed in 2014 after former trustee Scott Barnett announced unexpectedly he wouldn’t seek another term. Beiser, a teacher in Sweetwater Union High School District, has served on the board since 2010.

Regardless of how the public feels about their performance over the past four years, the fact their elections will be uncontested is a problem for parents who want to hear debate and the nitty gritty of plans to lead the school district. Even Matt Hall, editorial director for the San Diego Union-Tribune, expressed disappointment this week on the lack of competition (and conversation) over school board seats.

When I tackled this topic a couple years back, I talked to some who believed the current way in which school board trustees are elected — wherein candidates square off in a district-only primary and again in a city-wide election — disadvantages candidates without endorsements and financial backing from labor unions. School board members also receive paltry compensation for serving on the school board, which further limits the pool of candidates.

There’s a movement afoot to change the current school board election system — a decision that involves the City Council — but so far city Democrats have been unwilling to get involved. In January, they punted the issue back to the school board, which hand-selected a committee to review possible changes. The school board expected to come back to the City Council with a plan by June with recommendations from the committee.

Teachers Union Spoiling for a Fight

With a contract renewal nine months overdue, San Diego Unified teachers this week participated in a work-to-rule action to pressure the district during union contract negotiations, KPBS reported.

That meant teachers would do the work required of them, but go no further. They would not hold after-school tutoring, clubs or non-mandatory meetings. San Diego Education Association president Lindsay Burningham told KPBS it was a way to show the district what schools look like when educators don’t volunteer their time.

The action is part of a larger push for raises, smaller class sizes and smaller caseloads for special education staff, and is part of a campaign the teachers union has been organizing for months.

According to documents disseminated by the teachers union, the efforts are also driven in part by opposition to charter schools and a case before the Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME, which could end “agency fees” and strip unions of much of their financing and power, as described by the 74, an education news site.

Unrest among teachers unions led to a recently settled statewide strike in West Virginia, where teachers demanded a five percent pay raise. Unions in Oklahoma and Arizona are reportedly considering following West Virginia’s lead and launching strikes of their own.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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