The Teachers Union’s Public Enemy No. 1

September 2, 2017 by

Betsy DeVos is Trump’s stylistic opposite, but she stirs more antagonism than any other cabinet member.

 By

Tallahassee, Fla.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos liked what she saw Tuesday when she visited a pair of schools in Florida’s capital. When we met that afternoon, she had just come from the Florida State University School, a K-12 charter sponsored by the FSU College of Education. “I had a little roundtable with teachers,” she says. They raved about the school’s culture, which enables them “to be free to innovate and try things in the classroom that don’t necessarily conform with the instructor in the next classroom.”

Earlier in the day Mrs. DeVos had been at Holy Comforter Episcopal, a parochial school that serves pupils from prekindergarten through eighth grade. “They started STEM programs before STEM became the cool thing to do,” she says, “and it was just great to visit a variety of the classrooms and see some of the fun things that they’re doing to get kids interested.”

Local officials in this heavily Democratic area were less enthusiastic. “It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public-school system,” Rocky Hanna, Leon County’s superintendent of schools, groused to the Tallahassee Democrat. “And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school.” (A correction on the newspaper’s website noted that she did not visit the voucher school, Bethel Christian Academy, but rather attended a “private roundtable event” at the church center that houses it.)

ILLUSTRATION: KEN FALLIN

Mrs. DeVos, 59, stirs more passionate antagonism than any other member of President Trump’s cabinet—and that was true even before she took office. Two Republicans dissented from her February confirmation and no Democrat supported it, resulting in a 50-50 vote. She is the only cabinet secretary in U.S. history whose appointment required a vice-presidential tiebreaker.

Since then Mrs. DeVos has hit the road and visited 27 schools. Her first call, three days after she was sworn in, was Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, less than a mile from the Education Department’s headquarters. She was met by protesters, who blocked the entrance and shouted: “Go Back! Shame, shame!” When I ask about that incident, she plays it down: “There were just a few people that really didn’t want to see me enter the school. I don’t think they had anything to do with that school. But we, fortunately, found another way to get in, and I was greeted very warmly by all of the teachers.”

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Daniel Loeb’s Racially Charged Post Could Be Sticking Point for Expansion of Success Academy Charter Schools

August 21, 2017 by

Group with approval power said it would be ‘very difficult’ for network to expand if Loeb doesn’t step down from board

Hedge Fund manager Daniel Loeb said in a Facebook post this month that state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a black Democrat who serves as state Senate minority leader, had done ‘more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood.’ Mr. Loeb has apologized for the post, which has been deleted.
Hedge Fund manager Daniel Loeb said in a Facebook post this month that state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a black Democrat who serves as state Senate minority leader, had done ‘more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood.’ Mr. Loeb has apologized for the post, which has been deleted. PHOTO: ANDREW KELLY/REUTERS

The head of a group that approves New York charter schools said Monday that it would be “very difficult” for Success Academy Charter Schools to expand if hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb doesn’t step down from the charter network’s board in light of his recent racial remark.

In a Facebook post this month, Mr. Loeb said state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a black Democrat who serves as state Senate minority leader, had done “more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood” because of her loyalty to unions, according to a screenshot reported in the New York Times.

Mr. Loeb has apologized for the post, which was deleted, and said he regretted the language he used in expressing his “passion for educational choice.”

A chorus of Democratic politicians and others have called for Mr. Loeb to resign from the charter network in recent days. Joseph Belluck, chair of the Charter Schools Committee that oversees charter schools authorized by the State University of New York, ratcheted up the pressure on Monday.

Mr. Loeb’s “continued presence there is going to be quite a challenge for us as the authorizer” of these charters, said Mr. Belluck, who called the Facebook post “reprehensible.”

Representatives for Mr. Loeb declined to respond to Mr. Belluck’s comments Monday.

Success Academies, the city’s largest charter operator, has 46 charters open in New York City and wants to grow to 100 in a decade. Mr. Belluck, a longtime supporter of the high-performing network, heads the committee that decides whether to approve its applications to open new sites, and renew existing ones.

“It would be difficult for me to expand the network of a school that has somebody on the board that holds those views,” Mr. Belluck said. I“I’m trying to signal it would be very difficult going forward if he doesn’t” step down.t was important, he said, to show children that people should be held accountable for racially charged comments, especially in the wake of a white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Va., this month.

A spokeswoman for Success Academies said: by email that “SUNY is a strong authorizer and has always been fair and supportive of Success, and we know that it will make decisions on the merits of what’s best for students.”

Most of the charter network’s students are poor and black or Hispanic. Supporters praise its high test scores and orderly environment; critics accuse it of draining resources from traditional public schools and using overly harsh discipline. Teachers unions generally oppose charters, which usually aren’t unionized.

Mr. Belluck said that his committee has oversight over individual charter schools, and Mr. Loeb is chairman of the board of the network as a whole, so it is unclear how much direct authority the committee has over his position. The committee has leverage over Success Academy’s future, however, due to its power to approve or deny school applications.

A spokesman for Ms. Stewart-Cousins said after news of the post broke in early August that “in 2017 it is outrageous and offensive that this type of language is used by someone with such wide political influence.”

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com

Dan Loeb’s Political Offense

August 16, 2017 by

The investor is a target because he supports charter schools.

Daniel S. Loeb in 2012
Daniel S. Loeb in 2012 PHOTO: STEVE MARCUS/REUTERS

Most of the world knows Daniel Loeb as the activist hedge-fund investor who sometimes shakes up complacent corporate managers. But he’s also a disrupter of the status quo in New York education as a major supporter of charter schools. This explains why he has become a target of progressive politicians for a single ill-phrased Facebook post.

Mr. Loeb donates to New York politicians of both parties who support charter schools, including Governor Andrew Cuomo. Most Albany Democrats are beholden to the teachers unions, including Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is opposed by a group of independent Democrats led by Jeffrey Klein who sometimes join with Republicans on education policy.

Mr. Loeb responded with a Facebook post. “Thank God for Jeff Klein and those who stand for educational choice and support Charter funding,” Mr. Loeb wrote. “Meanwhile hypocrites like Stewart-Cousins who pay fealty to powerful union thugs and bosses do more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.”

The hood reference was unfortunate, not least because it gave unions and the left a chance to pounce. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who tries to undermine charters at every opportunity, demanded that Mr. Loeb resign as chair of Success Academy schools. Randi Weingarten, the union chief who recently said the school-choice movement has its roots in “racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia and homophobia,” also piled on. Mr. Loeb took down his Facebook post and apologized by saying “I regret the language I used in expressing my passion for educational choice.”

But Mr. Loeb has the right enemies, and no one should think their main objection is his Facebook post. Mr. Loeb’s real offense is that he donates his time and money to providing children, especially poor and minority children, a path out of the dead end that is so many failing New York public schools.

Union leaders and their political subsidiaries know they can’t defend their school record on moral grounds, so they seek to label anyone who favors choice as racists. That’s the point of Ms. Weingarten’s recent speeches, including a letter last week in these pages after we called her out in an editorial.

Ms. Weingarten has also bullied government pension funds to stop investing in Mr. Loeb’s Third Point hedge fund and other funds whose owners donate to charters. Mr. Loeb has the investing track record to withstand such a boycott, and to his credit he has remained a public supporter of charters. The shame is that so few other rich Americans are willing to stand up to political bullies on behalf of poor children.

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The Albany School Sellout

July 3, 2017 by

The politicians all get something, but poor kids are the losers.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Judging from the 11th-hour deal they reached giving mayor Bill de Blasio the control he wanted over New York City schools, Albany’s Republicans appear as determined to discredit themselves on education reform as their counterparts in the Republican Congress seem to be on repealing ObamaCare.

Last week we reported how the New York state legislature had adjourned for the year without lifting the charter-school cap that is beloved by the teachers unions. The GOP state Senate’s only negotiating leverage was mayoral control. Mayor de Blasio wanted it renewed but he and Carl Heastie, Democratic speaker of the State Assembly, were adamant that it not be done in exchange for allowing more charters.

They won. This week, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the legislature back into special session, Albany reached a compromise. It’s not being called the “big ugly” for nothing: It has something in it for every politician. Gov. Cuomo gets the new Tappan Zee Bridge named after his late father, Mario; Republicans gets some county sales tax extensions they wanted; fireman and cops get some pension sweeteners—and Democrats get mayoral control for Mr. de Blasio while successfully resisting any opening to new charters.

The losers are the non-politicians, especially the students who needed someone in Albany to fight for them to get a better chance for a better education. We’re thinking of the 50,000 kids in New York City who are on a waiting list because there aren’t enough charters to meet the demand.

Republicans control only the state Senate, and Gov. Cuomo could have made the difference if he had stood up for charters. But Mr. Cuomo is planning to run for President in 2020 and needs to mollify the unions, while the Republican Party claims to be on the side of charters, choice and education reform.

Everyone knows the Democratic Party long ago sold its soul to the unions. What Albany’s “big ugly” teaches is that if Republicans don’t stand up for charters, few others will.

Appeared in the July 1, 2017, print edition.

Supreme Court Religious Bonus

July 3, 2017 by

The Justices extend their Blaine ruling to school vouchers.

A Christian women's activist group shows their support of the ruling in Washington, June 27.

A Christian women’s activist group shows their support of the ruling in Washington, June 27. PHOTO: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Good news: Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on religious liberty was even better than we thought. The Justices ruled 7-2 that a church could not be banned from a public benefit program merely because it is a church. On Tuesday the Justices extended that principle by overturning a ruling that struck down Colorado’s school voucher program on religious grounds.

In 2011, Colorado’s Douglas County adopted a Choice Scholarship Program to let 500 students attend a local private school. But groups including the American Civil Liberties Union sued. The Colorado Supreme Court killed the program citing the state’s version of the Blaine Amendment, one of many state anti-Catholic laws from the 1800s to prevent public money from funding religious schools ( Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education).

The Douglas County School District and the Institute for Justice, which represents three families in Colorado, appealed to the Supreme Court in 2015, but the Justices held the petition pending the resolution of Trinity Lutheran v. Comer on Monday. On Tuesday the Court vacated and remanded Doyle to the lower court for reconsideration in keeping with Trinity Lutheran’s holding that Missouri’s application of the Blaine Amendment violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

The High Court typically vacates and remands only when the Justices think there is a “reasonable probability” that the lower court got it wrong. Colorado’s do-over is a warning to other states that might use Blaine Amendments to derail school choice programs that threaten teachers unions and the public school monopoly.

The win comes at a good time for school choice advocates who have been building momentum in the states. In May three families successfully challenged a Montana rule that prevented a voucher program from being used at religious schools. On Monday the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld a program of tax credits for scholarships to some 13,000 students to attend private schools.

School choice is spreading because parents want the chance to get their child a better education than they receive in local public schools. Sometimes that enhanced opportunity is offered by religious schools, and the First Amendment does not allow the state to discriminate on the basis of religion.

Judicial liberals have interpreted Monday’s Trinity Lutheran ruling as applying only to school playgrounds. But in his concurrence Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the Court’s playground decision should be understood broadly because jurisprudence must be governed by general principles. “The general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise,” he wrote, “whether on the playground or anywhere else.”

Appeared in the June 28, 2017, print edition.

All de Blasio’s Children

June 24, 2017 by

New York’s mayor gives up control to block more charter schools.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Amber Charter School in Manhattan in 2014.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Amber Charter School in Manhattan in 2014. PHOTO: POOL/GETTY IMAGES

How much does New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hate charter schools? So much that this week he was willing to give up mayoral control of the city’s schools rather than allow an increase in the cap on the number of charter schools.

The state legislature gave mayoral control to Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, as a way to wrest school governance from the union-dominated school board. Mr. Bloomberg used it to good effect by expanding innovation and choice, including charter schools. Mayoral control lets voters hold a political leader accountable for the city’s education performance.

But Mr. de Blasio is a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers union, so he has used mayoral control to erect barriers to charters at every opportunity. This includes denying them space that isn’t being used in other public schools. His hostility reached new heights on Wednesday when he let state legislators adjourn for their legislative session without renewing his authority rather than work out a deal that would allow more charters.

Charter schools already educate nearly one-tenth of New York City’s one million schoolchildren, and they include such stars as Success Academy that recently received the Broad Prize for the performance of its 14,000 students. The unions resent charters because they aren’t union-run—and thus throw off no union dues—and because their success proves that kids written off as unteachable can learn in the right environment.

In state test scores for 2015-16, for example, African-American and Hispanic charter students were more than twice as likely to be proficient in math than their peers in traditional public schools. Parents can see the results, which is why there is a waiting list of nearly 50,000 students to attend city charters.

The good news is that charters have allies in Albany who have kept a short leash on Mr. de Blasio’s control, extending it for one year in both 2015 and 2016. This year the GOP state Senate offered Mr. de Blasio control for as much as five years and proposed allowing 40% of the charter-school openings to be in New York City, as well as raising the state cap on charters to 510 from the current 460. Governor Andrew Cuomo has also battled Mr. de Blasio over charters and favors an increase in the charter cap.

As a candidate three years ago, Mr. de Blasio acknowledged the failures of public education in New York and declared that he’d be mayor for all children—those in “traditional public schools, in charter schools, in religious schools.” But now as he gears up for his January re-election campaign, he is doing the bidding of unions run by adults who fear nothing more than schools that might better educate students. The closing of the progressive mind never ceases to amaze.

Appeared in the June 23, 2017, print edition.

Los Angeles Charter Uprising

May 22, 2017 by

Voters elect a pro-reform majority on the local school board.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

One reason public schools in big cities are so lousy is union control of local school boards. This has long been true in Los Angeles, but last week charter-school advocates dealt a major blow to the failing status quo by winning a majority on the district’s Board of Education.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has some of the country’s lowest-performing public schools. In 2015 only one in five fourth-graders rated proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While Los Angeles boasts more charter schools than any district in the country, they still account for merely 16% of enrollment. Two years ago the Great Public Schools Now initiative, which is backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, set a goal of enrolling 50% of the district’s students in charters. The unions naturally went nuts.

As union schools lose students (and thus taxpayer funds) to charters, the school board has become even more reactionary. Last month the board voted to support three bills before the state legislature in Sacramento that aim to limit autonomy for charter schools. One would prevent charters from appealing rejections by local school boards to county and state boards. The appeals process is one reason charters in Los Angeles have been able to expand despite school-board resistance.

Anti-charter board members have tried to convince parents that rising graduation rates show that traditional public schools are improving. But the real explanation is that the board dumbed down graduation requirements and allowed students to pass courses with a D grade. Half of last year’s graduating seniors were ineligible for state public universities, according to the education nonprofit The 74.

School board president Steve Zimmer, who was ousted last week, declared that “teachers are not failing. Students are not failing. Schools are not failing.” Parents who voted in the local elections believe otherwise.

Unions tried to vilify pro-charter candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez by portraying them as tools of Donald Trump, though both were endorsed by President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the state’s progressive former Senator Barbara Boxer. There’s nothing progressive about failing low-income minority kids.

Appeared in the May. 22, 2017, print edition.

Learn Free or Die

April 26, 2017 by

 

New Hampshire can put its famous state motto to work on education.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last month, Arizona became the second state after Nevada to enact universal education savings accounts, or ESAs, which allow parents to spend a state’s per-pupil aid amount on other education options. New Hampshire may soon be the next state to establish a universal right to freedom of education—if Republicans don’t lose their nerve.

In 2012, the Granite State established a modest tax-credit scholarship program, but last year only 178 students—less than 0.1% of statewide public school enrollment—received awards, which average about 15% of $14,909 per-student public school spending. The state Senate opened the school-choice doors last month by passing a universal ESA bill that would give parents who withdraw their kids from public schools 90% of their child’s per-pupil state allocation to spend on private-school tuition, curriculum, tutoring or other state-approved education expenses.

The legislation is now facing resistance in the GOP-controlled House. At a hearing last week, there were questions about inferior accommodations for students with disabilities at private schools. But parents wouldn’t be forced to withdraw their kids from public schools. If they like their local public school, they can keep their child in it. Some Republicans worry about the fiscal impact on rural school districts. But these districts have to rationalize labor and overhead costs eventually due to demographic changes.

State Board of Education Chairman Tom Raffio has argued that ESAs are unnecessary because New Hampshire’s public schools rank among the best in the nation. That’s partly an artifact of the state’s predominantly well-to-do population. Still, only 31% of low-income fourth graders in 2015 scored proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a seven-point decline since 2013. Parents unhappy with results like this should be able to seek alternatives.

Meanwhile in Nevada, a state Supreme Court decision overturning its funding mechanism has their program and about 8,000 parents on hold. GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval ought to veto new spending bills until his Democratic legislature funds ESAs.

It is hard to justify one-size-fits-all-public education in an era that increasingly allows people to exercise choice in most aspects of their lives. Republicans in New Hampshire would be fortifying the state’s motto to live free or die by embracing the freedom to learn.

Every Public-School Student in Arizona Will Get a Chance at Choice

April 15, 2017 by

The state expands its program offering $5,000 to $14,000 in education savings accounts.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in Phoenix, Jan. 6.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in Phoenix, Jan. 6. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s hard to find Aiden Yellowhair’s school on a map. He and his sister, Erin, are members of the Navajo Nation and attend the private St. Michael Indian School outside Window Rock, Ariz. The Catholic school’s website provides a helpful tip to follow Interstate 40 east from Flagstaff, but warns that “if you pass into New Mexico, you’ve gone too far.”

The remote location makes it easy to overlook St. Michael’s 400 students, but the school is an oasis on the 27,500-square-mile reservation. Only 66% of Arizona’s Native American high schoolers graduate in four years, a full 12 percentage points below the state average and nearly 20 points below the national average. At St. Michael, the principal says, 99% of students graduate and 98% of those attend college.

What allows Aiden and Erin to cover tuition at St. Michael is Arizona’s program for education savings accounts. Parents who take children out of public schools can opt in and receive, in a private account, a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on their education. Most students receive $5,000, but the deposits for children with special needs are roughly $14,000, depending on the diagnosis. That money can be used to pay for private-school tuition, tutoring, extracurricular activities, school uniforms and more.

Arizona created the program in 2011 for special-needs students, but since then lawmakers have slowly expanded eligibility—to children in military families, foster care, and failing schools, as well as those on Native American reservations. Today more than 3,300 students use the accounts, about 1% of those eligible.

Now the state has opened the gates to everyone. Last week Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that will give every public-school student in Arizona—1.2 million in all—an opportunity to apply to the program. New enrollment will be capped at about 5,500 students per year, up to a maximum of 30,000 in 2022. To apply, students must be currently enrolled in public school, except for incoming kindergartners. Applicants will be taken first come, first served.

Education savings accounts are a way to give parents more options. Many families would like to send their children to private schools or home-school them, but they simply cannot afford to—especially since they are taxed to pay for public schools regardless. A program like Arizona’s allows these parents to make the best choice for their families, whether that means a religious school, a secular private school or home schooling.

Arizona is not the first state to give its entire student body the opportunity to use an education savings account, but here the idea has already run the legal gauntlet. Two years ago when Nevada created a similar program, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit that blocked the law. The ACLU had argued that because some parents might choose religious schools, the Nevada program would wind up funding sectarian organizations in violation of the state constitution.

The Nevada Supreme Court did not buy that argument, ruling that because parents control the accounts it does not qualify as public money. But the court struck down the mechanism that lawmakers had used to fund the program. Nevada lawmakers have introduced a bill to remedy the situation, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Democratic Legislature are sharply divided.

A similar legal battle took place in Arizona. An appeals court—whose ruling was upheld by the state Supreme Court—held in 2013 that education savings accounts do not violate Arizona’s constitution. “The parents of a qualified student under the ESA,” the court ruled, “must provide an education in reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science. Whether that is done at a private secular or sectarian school is a matter of parental choice.”

Arizona’s law is proving the success of school choice. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states, including Texas, Missouri and Maine, have considered similar programs in recent years. The first drafts of these bills often make education savings accounts available to all public-school students. That would give more parents than ever the option to do what’s right for their families—instead of what’s best for the education bureaucracy.

Mr. Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Appeared in the Apr. 15, 2017, print edition.

Religious Liberty at the Supremes

April 14, 2017 by

A full Court of nine takes on anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments.

TrinityLutheran Church in Missouri.

TrinityLutheran Church in Missouri. PHOTO: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Can a church be cut out of a state funding program merely because it’s a church? That’s the question on Wednesday when the Supreme Court hears arguments that could determine whether state laws that discriminate against religious groups violate the First Amendment.

In 2012 Columbia, Missouri-based Trinity Lutheran Church applied to participate in the state’s Scrap Tire Grant Program, which gives money to schools or other groups that want to resurface playgrounds with recycled tires to provide a safer surface. The program is neutral and secular and provides around a dozen applicants with playground renovations each year.

The church wanted the new surface for the playground used by its preschool, but the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which runs the program, rejected the application. In a letter to Trinity Lutheran, the DNR explained that “‘Article I, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution specifically provides that ‘no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion.’”

This language is known as the Blaine Amendment, one of many state laws passed amid a burst of anti-Catholic sentiment in the late 1800s to cut off public funds for religious schools. More recently, progressives have adopted Blaine Amendments to bar state money for religious organizations and block voucher programs that let parents choose religious schools for their children.

Trinity Lutheran sued in January 2013, noting that the laws violate the First Amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” as well as the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. A federal judge dismissed the church’s claim and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that state money used to resurface a church playground was an improper payment to a religious organization.

Those opposed to the church receiving state money for its playground cite the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Locke v. Davey, in which the Justices ruled that a publicly funded scholarship program was not required to fund students seeking degrees in theology or religious studies. But unlike Locke, in which the public money was paying for the furtherance of Christian theology, the money applied for by Trinity Lutheran was for a neutral and nonreligious purpose.

By explicitly excluding the church preschool from a secular program because it is run by a religious organization, Missouri is discriminating in violation of the Constitution’s free exercise of religion clause. The Founders wanted religious groups treated equally and without government interference, not to have them discriminated against because of their religion.

Blaine Amendments have become a favorite weapon against school vouchers that threaten the public school monopoly. The Justices should make clear that using the amendments to exclude religious groups from public benefit programs violates the Constitution.