Proponents of school choice in North Carolina celebrated the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday, saying demand is growing among families for charter school options and voucher programs.
And advocates hope DeVos’ department will approve the state’s latest request for federal charter-school funding, which was rejected last year.
She was confirmed Tuesday by 51-50 after Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking “yes” vote in the Senate.
President Donald Trump’s nomination of DeVos unleashed weeks of heated debate over how she’ll influence education funding and federal policy for public schools while championing taxpayer-supported voucher programs for private schools. DeVos also has years of experience in expanding public charter schools, which typically get less government funding and have greater flexibility in curriculums and hiring.
Some teachers’ groups and public school advocates fought DeVos’ nomination, saying they worry she’ll steer emphasis away from traditional public education systems.
82,000+ students enrolled in North Carolina charter schools
In North Carolina, charter school enrollment has nearly doubled since 2011, when state lawmakers lifted the cap on how many charters could be open. Previously, the cap was 100. Now, nearly 82,000 students attend one of 158 charter schools in North Carolina.
Charter schools operate in 60 of the 100 N.C. counties. Statewide, nearly 1.5 million students attend traditional public schools.
State officials haven’t said why North Carolina’s federal charter-school funding application was denied, said Lee Teague, head of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools. But Teague said he was hopeful that DeVos’ team would give the request another look, as well as continue much of what President Barack Obama’s Education Department leaders had started in improving the policy environment for school choice.
Fans of charter schools say DeVos will be an advocate for expanding enrollment opportunities for low-income families and lead a federal Education Department more receptive to school choice. In particular, advocates want more charter schools to serve rural areas of the state.
At the same time, one of the state’s leading school-choice proponents hopes DeVos will give equal attention to improving traditional public schools, where students enroll based on where they live.
We need every tool in the tool box. Darrell Allison, school choice advocate in N.C.
Traditional public schools should be able to give teachers the same flexibility and tools that public charters do, said Darrell Allison, president of the N.C. Parents for Educational Freedom, a group that has worked with the national Alliance for School Choice, where DeVos served as a board member. Allison’s organization has received money from DeVos and the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group.
“We know that on far too many occasions, a family’s income is the biggest determinate as to if a child will be adequately educated,” Allison said. “We have to really put action to rhetoric if we really want to remedy that. We need every tool in the tool box.”
North Carolina U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, voted for DeVos on Tuesday. In the days leading up to the Senate confirmation, North Carolina residents opposed to DeVos flooded Burr and Tillis’ offices with calls, as did Democratic-leaning organizations.
Tillis and Burr were criticized by Democratic groups recently for past donations to their political campaigns from DeVos and her family.
The Charlotte Observer reported late last month that DeVos’ family had given $43,200 to Burr’s 2016 re-election campaign. Tillis has received a total of $70,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Burr’s office would not comment on the donations. Tillis’ office said he would hold the executive branch and federal agencies accountable to support public schools, regardless of who was leading the Education Department.
Tillis met with DeVos last week and she emphasized her support for quality public education for students with disabilities, Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said in a statement to McClatchy.
One reason national teacher’s unions and traditional public education groups opposed DeVos’ nomination is she lacks direct experience with public schools and has never worked as an educator or administrator. The North Carolina Association of Educators said the lack of experience made her unqualified.
But that’s also a reason school choice groups like her.
She’s going to be thinking outside the box. Donald Bryson, N.C. Americans for Prosperity
“She’s going to be thinking outside the box,” said Donald Bryson, director of North Carolina’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative political group. “Families need real choice and real options and real reform.”
The debate over charter schools and voucher programs, Bryson said, seems to have devolved into a political argument where school choice proponents are viewed as being anti-public-schools. As that played out nationally over DeVos’ nomination, he said, he saw flashes of the debate that policy makers and parents have been having in North Carolina in recent years.
Charter schools started in North Carolina in 1996 as “laboratories” for best practices in education, Bryson said. Over time, he said, the conversation has become combative, with traditional public school advocates saying, “You’re taking money from us,” he said.
Others say strong federal involvement in schools is needed to enforce nondiscrimination laws.
DeVos’ family has contributed millions to Republican groups and candidates
DeVos seems interested in giving more authority to states and school districts, which could lead to less enforcement of federal civil rights laws, said Matt Ellinwood, education policy expert at the North Carolina Justice Center, which advocates for low-income people in the state.
The center has, in the past, filed federal civil rights complaints on behalf of immigrant and refugee children, who often face delays in school enrollment, Ellinwood said. He said refugee children, especially, didn’t have all the paperwork typically required at the point of enrollment, such as certified copies of birth certificates. Federal court rulings give families in those situations some leeway and Ellinwood’s group has succeeded in forcing N.C. education officials to obey federal regulations.
He worried DeVos won’t intervene in cases like that on behalf of immigrant students.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave an outdated name for the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools.