California’s Teacher Tax Break

March 17, 2017 by

Sacramento moves to exempt public-school teachers from state income tax.

OPINION REVIEW & OUTLOOK
March 15, 2017 7:30 p.m. ET
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California schools have many problems, but a teacher shortage isn’t one of them. Democrats in Sacramento nonetheless want to throw millions of dollars at this fake problem by exempting veteran teachers from state income tax while ignoring the real systemic inequities in education.

Unions promote the conceit of a teacher shortage whenever they’re seeking more money, which is basically all the time. Over the last six years—that is, since California voters approved a tax hike on the wealthy—state spending on education and the per pupil allotment have increased by 55%.

Yet many school districts are now threatening layoffs. Santa Ana Unified School District this week is sending pink slips to nearly 300 teachers to save $28 million. In San Diego nearly 900 teachers received layoff warnings this month as the school district grapples with a $124 million deficit. It seems many school districts employ more teachers than even their bloated budgets will support.

Where is all the money going? Santa Ana’s school board spent $32 million on a teacher pay boost. Many districts have padded their payrolls, as more teachers were hired in 2016 than during any year in the last decade. Pension and retiree health costs are ballooning. Between 2013 and 2020, teacher pension bills will more than double to 19.1% of district payrolls.

These legacy costs are especially burdensome in low-performing districts where enrollment is shrinking due to charter-school competition. Enrollment has declined by about 15% in Santa Ana district-run schools and more than 20% in Los Angeles’s in a decade. Note that charters aren’t complaining about a lack of qualified teachers.

To the extent a shortage exists, it’s a dearth of good teachers. State law requires districts to fire newer teachers first when budget layoffs occur, even if they are better than older counterparts. Last-in-first-out policies discourage bright young people from teaching. According to a Teacher Plus poll last year, 63% of California principals believe seniority-based layoffs are viewed negatively by people considering the profession. Nearly three-quarters reported having fired a young teacher who was more effective than a veteran.

School reformers challenged last-in-first-out in the Vergara lawsuit based on equal protection and disparate impact but lost on appeal. Yet you almost have to admire the gall of Democrats who are adopting Vergara’s arguments to support legislation exempting teachers who have worked more than five years from state income tax.

“High teacher turnover rates have a negative impact on pupil achievement, and the effect is more pronounced in high-minority, high-poverty schools,” the legislation notes, adding that students with “effective teachers are more likely to earn higher salaries, attend college, and save more for retirement.”

The tax exemption would increase teacher pay by 4% to 6%, and veterans who earn the most would receive the biggest benefit. This doubles down on the seniority system. If Democrats were serious about hiring the best teachers, they’d pay them for performance and abolish last-in-first-out. But as usual they’re more interested in helping their union friends.

Appeared in the Mar. 16, 2017, print edition.

Testify in Austin on Tuesday, March 21 in Support of School Choice!

March 15, 2017 by

The Texas School Choice Coalition is committed to empowering parents with more educational options.

New Date: March 21 – 9:00 AM, Texas Capitol
Testify in Support of School Choice!

COME TESTIFY!
SCHOOL CHOICE
HEARING

Tuesday, March 21
Arrive at 9:00 AM or later
The Hearing will last until 5:00 PM

Room E1.028,
Texas Capitol

Click here to learn more
Please join us in Austin on Tuesday, March 21 to have your voice heard in support of school choice! The Senate Education Committee will be hearing the first of many important proposed bills relating to school choice in Texas. Senate Bill 3 would create an education savings account and a tax credit scholarship. Read more about SB3.
TEXAS TRIBUNE: School choice bill pitches savings accounts, tax credit scholarships

By Aliyya Swaby – January 30, 2017
Photo Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

One of the most anticipated debates of the 85th Legislative Session began taking shape Monday with the layout of a two-part Texas Senate bill that would allow for Texas taxpayer dollars to be used to help parents send their kids to private or religious schools.

Senate Bill 3, filed by Senate Education Chairman Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, would establish the creation of two voucher-like programs that some parents could combine to subsidize the entire cost of private school tuition.

The first half of the bill proposes education savings accounts, or ESAs, which give Texas parents public money to spend on private K-12 school tuition and education-related expenses, including tutoring, technology, textbooks and special education services. Five states have implemented the program so far, mostly for students who have special needs.

The second half of the bill brings back a proposal for tax credit scholarships, which was hotly debated during the 2015 legislative session. The tax credit scholarship program would allow businesses to count contributions to approved scholarship organizations as credit against their insurance premium tax.

“This is not money leaving the system. It is money following the student,” Taylor said Monday at a Capitol news conference announcing the legislation.

“If Texas wants to remain economically sound … we need to pass school choice legislation to give all of our students the opportunity to receive a great education that is tailored to their specific needs,” he added.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former Senate Education Committee chairman, has championed private school choice legislation since his first session as a state senator in 2007. He said Tuesday that 13,000 to 15,000 students would be able to take advantage of this funding, if the bill passes.

At last week’s National School Choice Week Rally, he called on the House to take a vote on the upcoming bill. “It’s easy to kill a bill when no one gets to vote on it,” he said.

At the same rally, Gov. Greg Abbott said he looked forward to signing the bill once it reaches his desk. “I hope and I urge that that law reach my desk. And when it does, I will make the choice to sign it and authorize school choice in the state of Texas.”

Last session, the Senate approved a tax credit scholarship bill, but the House did not bring it up for a vote.

Students in families of all income levels would be eligible to access the education savings accounts. Low-income students would receive 75 percent of average state operational costs per student. Students above the poverty line would receive 60 percent, and students with disabilities would get 90 percent, according to the bill.

Taylor said students’ home districts and the state would share the portion of funds left over, leaving schools with more money to educate fewer students.

To use the education savings accounts, students must be currently attending public school, or looking to attend private school in kindergarten or first grade.

The tax credit scholarship program is more restrictive, allowing just the most vulnerable students up to 75 percent of average state operational costs per student. Students can use scholarships for private school tuition and other education expenses, if they are in foster care, need special education services, have family in active military duty, or are below the poverty line. They must be enrolled in public school, starting school for the first time, or be the sibling of a student who is eligible.

The scholarship program would also provide up to $500 for students who want to stay in the public school system and pay for extra academic support, including tutoring and transportation to other districts, Taylor said Tuesday. The total amount of tax credits allowed in the 2018 fiscal year would be $100 million, and the cap increases by 10 percent each year.

Low-income families could combine the two programs, Taylor said, to make up the difference for private school tuition and transportation costs. “Only a small percentage of families will take advantage of these programs, because most families want to stay in the public school system,” Taylor said. “Parents really need to want something else in order to leave.”

Critics argue that school choice measures like education savings accounts divert public money to private schools, with no accountability, and exacerbate school funding inequities. Proponents say the accounts could help ease excessive enrollment at “failing” public schools by subsidizing parents who want to take their students to schools outside of the public system.

Patrick has linked “school choice” policies to the state’s new A-F rating system for schools and districts. “No parent should be forced to send their child to a school that’s a D or an F or a C, or frankly any school that they don’t think serves their child,” he said earlier this month at a forum hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

At the same forum, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz encouraged the Texas Legislature to “step up and lead and help lead the nation on school choice.”

All parents, no matter the income level, should be able to use the education savings accounts, said Vance Ginn, an economist the Center for Fiscal Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“No matter your income, if you’re paying property and state taxes…why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to go to whatever school they choose,” he said. “Once you add in competition, it increases student outcomes across the board — and public school outcomes.”

Opponents immediately released statements against the bill Tuesday.

Charles Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, said parents should not be allowed to take their tax money back, if they choose not to send their children to a public school. “We believe public education is a basic provision of the social contract,” he said. “Anything that releases us from that public trust to the benefit of a few should be opposed.”

“SB 3 is a school voucher on steroids. It marries a taxpayer-funded government subsidy for private schools and vendors to a corporate tax break with little public oversight and no accountability for results,” said Alison Badgett, executive director of education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas.

“This is an attack on public education that will harm the vast majority of Texas school children in order to benefit a few private and religious schools, and it may allow a few homeschoolers to purchase new family computers at taxpayer expense,” said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

Senate Bill 3 is one of a few voucher-like bills this session that would have taxpayer money follow students to private schools and homeschooling.

State. Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, proposed House Bill 1335, which would create education savings accounts allowing parents of special-needs students to pay for private school, special education services, and other education expenses. Other states with education savings account programs started by limiting them to students with disabilities.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Texas Private Schools Association are pushing tax credit scholarships in separate bills — Senate Bill 542 and House Bill 1184. Students with high academic and financial need could use those scholarships at any accredited private or parochial school, similar to Taylor’s bill. But those bills do not include education savings accounts.

“When it comes to an education savings account, we’re a little more cautious. We see potential there. We’re a little more cautious because we haven’t done it,” said Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference.

This newsletter is designed and produced by Randan Steinhauser for the Texas School Choice Coalition. For information on adding upcoming events or news articles, please email: Randan@SteinhauserStrategies.com
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American Teachers Unions Oppose Innovative Schools—in Africa

March 10, 2017 by

Bridge Academies show promising results in Kenya and Uganda, but unions see them only as a threat.

 

Shannon May from Bridge International Academies with pupils in Monrovia, Liberia, May 25, 2016.

Shannon May from Bridge International Academies with pupils in Monrovia, Liberia, May 25, 2016. PHOTO: ZOOM DOSSO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

No longer content to oppose educational innovation at home, the unions representing America’s teachers have gone abroad in search of monsters to slay.

For nearly a decade, Bridge International Academies has run a chain of successful private schools in the slums of Kenya and Uganda. A for-profit company, Bridge has shown that it’s possible to provide high-quality, low-cost primary education to poor children in the developing world. Naturally, the teachers unions are outraged.

“Bridge’s for-profit educational model is robbing students of a good education and depriving them of their natural curiosity to imagine and learn,” said National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García in October. “This is morally wrong, and professionally reprehensible.”

According to Unesco, the literacy rate among second- and third-graders in Kenya is 32%; in Uganda it’s 27%. The teachers unions blame poverty. Only students who are free from want, they say, can be free to learn.

An alternative explanation is that poor-performing schools in Africa—and India, where Bridge expanded in 2017—are simply not geared for learning. In parts of the developing world, a rigid curriculum leaves many students hopelessly behind. No real attempts are made to monitor school performance. Teachers often lack appropriate skills and frequently fail even to show up to work.

In 2013 the World Bank determined that teachers in Kenya’s government schools were absent 47% of the time, teaching an average of only two hours, 19 minutes a day. A government audit showed that 80% of the primary-school teachers certified by Uganda last year could not themselves reliably perform at the primary-school level in reading and mathematics.

African and Indian parents are no different from American parents. They know that poor-performing government schools are letting their children down. Even the desperately poor in slums and rural areas are willing to pay for a better option.

Bridge is a Silicon Valley-style startup. Its founders hope to revolutionize education, taking inspiration from the way Tesla and Uber disrupted their industries. With more than $100 million in support from Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. and Learn Capital, Bridge has developed a new model of private education.

Bridge school teachers are provided with lesson plans and teaching scripts. They work eight-hour days. Their attendance is monitored; absences are rare. Student-performance data are collected, analyzed and used to improve outcomes.

In Kenya, progress has been notable. After two years in Bridge schools, 59% of students pass the national primary school exam. That’s 15 percentage points higher than the estimated public-school pass-rate. In 56 communities from 23 rural and urban counties, Bridge had a 100% pass rate among pupils who attended their schools for at least two years.

These unprecedented gains led World Bank president Jim Yong Kim in 2015 to single out Bridge for helping lift students in the developing world into the modern age. His words of praise enraged Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “The World Bank’s promotion of the fee-charging, for-profit Bridge International Academies in Kenya and Uganda is not an appropriate role for the institution,” she said.

In late 2016, Education International, a global consortium of teachers unions, issued detailed reports attacking Bridge’s work in Kenya and Uganda. While never mentioning the improvement in student learning, the reports maligned Bridge’s use of teaching scripts, claiming that they hindered teacher flexibility and creativity. Not surprisingly, a main concern was that teacher salaries are lower at Bridge schools than they are at government schools. But it seems educational innovation anywhere is a threat to union control everywhere.

Mr. Hanushek is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a special adviser to Learn Capital, which supports the expansion of Bridge International Academies.

Rep. Huberty is committed to “protecting” his fellow House members, NOT the low-income kids in Texas.

March 2, 2017 by

Chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Representative Dan Huberty (HD 127)(512-463-0520), declared that it is his job to prevent a vote on school choice from happening so that he can “protect” his members.  What he means by “his members” are the other representatives who don’t want to be embarrassed by having to vote against what President Trump, Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, and other fellow Texas House Representatives are in favor of.

It’s clear that he isn’t interested in protecting the 100,000 kids that are on charter school waiting lists in Texas.

Here is a video of Rep. Huberty “protecting” his fellow House members.

 DHuberty-clip-01.mp4

 

 

Will Unions Cripple Kentucky’s Belated Charter-School Effort?

March 2, 2017 by

Opponents of reform are pushing a weak bill that maintains the local school boards’ monopoly.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18.

An elementary school in Stanton, Ky., Feb. 18. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Kentucky is one of only seven states that doesn’t allow charter schools, making it something of an educational backwater. Republicans have been trying to pass charter-school legislation since 2009, only to be stymied by Democrats, who had a lock on the governorship and state House.

But charters’ time in the Bluegrass State may have finally arrived. In 2015 Republican Matt Bevin, a charter-school champion, was elected governor. Then last year Republicans seized control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921 and unseated Speaker Greg Stumbo, a staunch opponent of school choice. Republicans now hold large majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly—64 of 100 seats in the House and 27 of 38 in the Senate.

Even teachers unions and local school boards seem resigned to the inevitability of allowing charter schools. To limit the damage to their interests, they’re trying to exploit divisions among Republicans to keep charters tightly contained by conceding regulatory authority to the local boards.

Kentucky schools rank about average nationwide, though large disparities exist among districts. Last year 77% of middle-school students in the Cincinnati suburb of Fort Thomas scored “proficient” on state math tests. Four miles away in Newport, only 30% did. For Jefferson County (Louisville), the figure was 39%.

“We have a great city, a beautiful downtown, trails,” says Lynn Schaber, a Newport mom whose second-grade son attends a Montessori school. “But people aren’t happy with the school system. As they say around here, it’s trikes, no bikes. People move out of the city once their kids get older than 3 because of the poor schools.”

Like many suburban and rural districts in Kentucky, Newport has only one elementary, middle and high school. Parents in low-performing districts who can afford it send their kids to private schools or move to districts with better schools like Fort Thomas, where the median home price is about twice that of Newport. Thus, public schools and cities become segregated along socioeconomic, and in some cases racial, lines. Nearly 90% of Newport students qualify for free or discounted lunches, compared with about 15% in Fort Thomas.

Such gaping inequities are driving support for charter-school legislation that would bring Kentucky’s education system into the 21st century. Last month state Rep. Phil Moffett introduced a bill that would allow local school districts, college governing boards, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, the Louisville and Lexington mayors, and the state Board of Education to authorize charters.

Multiple authorizers would enable students to travel outside their home districts to attend a charter. By contrast, district authorizers could limit enrollment to students within their bounds. This would be a huge impediment to charter growth in rural and suburban areas where there are fewer students. Newport’s system-wide enrollment is just 1,600 students—fewer than in some big-city high schools.

Mrs. Schaber has joined five other parents to devise plans for a charter school that will enroll students from six small cities across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. She notes that parents frequently move between the cities, depending on their job and housing. So it makes sense to form a regional charter.

Charter opponents are pushing a weaker bill that would vest local school boards with the sole power to authorize and regulate charters. That would let those boards, typically controlled by the unions, throw up roadblocks. While charters could appeal district decisions to the state Board of Education, the process would be cumbersome and costly. Only charters backed by well-heeled donors would have the resources to navigate and battle the education bureaucracy.

The experience of other states is instructive. Iowa, Kansas and Virginia don’t allow multiple authorizers and have few charter schools. Arizona, Minnesota and New York do, and have an abundance. Charters in the latter group of states are among the highest-performing nationwide.

The weaker bill would also require charters to participate in and contribute to the state’s insolvent public pension system, among the worst funded in the country. So they could be forced to pick up the retirement tab for union teachers in traditional public schools.

Local school boards have lobbied Republicans to reject legislation with multiple authorizers and instead back the diluted bill, which they say will hold charters more accountable. “People love their local school board,” says Mrs. Schaber. “They want to support it.”

That may be, but allowing local school boards to regulate their competition is fundamentally unfair. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last year that a law allowing Amtrak to regulate freight trains that compete for track time could not be sustained under the Fifth Amendment: “Giving a self-interested entity regulatory authority over its competitors violates due process.” The same principle should apply when children’s futures are at stake.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.

The ‘Shaming’ of Betsy DeVos

February 28, 2017 by

The education secretary should use what her critics fear most: the bully pulpit.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Here’s a suggestion for America’s new secretary of education: Forget about federal education policy.

Not that policy isn’t important. But if Betsy DeVos wants to make her time count, she’d do best to use what her critics fear most: her bully pulpit. Because if Mrs. DeVos does nothing else in her time but lay bare the corruption of a system failing children who need a decent education most—and shame all those standing in the way of reforming it—she will go down as an education secretary of consequence.

“The temptation for an education secretary is to make a few earnest speeches but never really challenge the forces responsible for failure,” says Jeanne Allen,founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

“But the moms and dads whose children are stuck in schools where they aren’t learning need better choices now—and a secretary of education who speaks up for them and takes on the teachers unions and the politicians on their own turf.”

Excellent advice, not least because education is (rightly) a state and local issue and Secretary DeVos has neither the authority nor the wherewithal to transform our public schools from Washington. What she does have is the means to force the moral case out into the open.

New York City would be a good place to start. In Bill de Blasio, the city boasts, if that is the right word, a mayor who fancies himself the nation’s progressive-in-chief, along with a schools chancellor who has all the credentials Mrs. DeVos is accused of lacking, including experience teaching in public schools.

Unfortunately, these credentials haven’t done much to help students. Only 36% of New York City district-school pupils from grades 3 to 8 passed math, and only 38% English. For black students the numbers drop to 20% proficient in math and 27% in English. As a general rule, the longer New York City kids stay in traditional public schools, the worse they do.

It can’t be for lack of resources. Figures from the city’s independent budget office list New York as spending $23,516 per pupil this school year, among the most in the U.S. And instead of closing bad schools, Mr. de Blasio has opted for the teachers-union solution: More spending!

The result? More than two years and nearly half a billion dollars after his “Renewal” program for chronically failing schools was announced, there’s little to show for it.

How might Mrs. DeVos respond? How about a trip to the South Bronx, where she could visit, say, MS 301 Paul L. Dunbar, St. Athanasius and the Success Academy Bronx 1 grade and middle schools. These are, respectively, a traditional public middle-school for grades 6-8, a K-8 Catholic school, and a pair of Success charters serving K-7.

Imagine how Mrs. DeVos might change the conversation by speaking publicly about the differences among these schools? Or by meeting with neighborhood kids languishing on the 44,000-long wait list for a seat at a city charter? Or by asking the non-Catholic parents at St. Athanasius, whose children are there because of a scholarship program, to talk about the difference this school is making in their children’s lives?

Mayor de Blasio would howl. The teachers unions would show up to protest. But the furor a DeVos visit provoked would underscore her point about just whose interests are being sacrificed—and provide a tremendous force equalizer for outgunned parents and reformers taking on the education establishment.

Now imagine Mrs. DeVos making this same kind of visit to other cities where the public-school systems for decades have effectively been consigning their poor and minority students to a future on the margins of the American dream: Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno, Calif., etc. And not just the cities: Rural districts have their own share of complacent pols of both parties who need to be called to account.

Certainly the teachers unions and the Democrats they hold in their pockets account for the core of the opposition to the choice and accountability. But the GOP has made its own grim contributions to our two-tiered public-school system. This includes in Illinois in 2010, when nearly half the Republicans in the state House provided the margin needed to kill a Chicago voucher program.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy has to be reminded that the ruby slippers she wears must be very powerful or the Wicked Witch wouldn’t want them so badly. Mrs. DeVos finds herself in a similar position. She will do well to remember that the nastiness of her confirmation was in fact a backhanded recognition by her foes that they have lost the moral argument.

“The opposition to change is not polite and always on the offense,” says Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York. “Betsy’s going to need to play offense or we will lose another generation of children.”

Write to McGurn@wsj.com.

Opposition Mounts for Education Nominee Betsy DeVos 

February 6, 2017 by

Nomination for secretary of education would fail if a third Republican abandons her during the confirmation vote

Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary, at a Jan. 17 confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, at a Jan. 17 confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. PHOTO: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of education, is at risk Tuesday of becoming the first cabinet nominee in 28 years to be rejected by the Senate, due in large part to the efforts of people like Tim Royers, a high-school history teacher from Nebraska.

Named his state’s teacher of the year, Mr. Royers started organizing his fellow honorees against Mrs. DeVos when they gathered for a celebration last month in Florida. When Mrs. DeVos, a school-choice activist, seemed to stumble in her confirmation hearing days later, Facebook messages began flying among the teachers about how to use the moment to lobby lawmakers.

Similar efforts by parents, teachers and others around the country helped jam Senate phone lines for days. With two Republican senators now opposed to Mrs. DeVos, her nomination would fail if a third Republican abandons her during the confirmation vote, expected on Tuesday.

Republicans hold 52 Senate seats, and Democrats have 48. If no additional opponents to her nomination emerge, the Senate will be tied, 50-50, leaving Vice President Mike Pencewith the deciding vote and making her the only cabinet nominee in history to win confirmation on a tiebreaking vote by a vice president.

For a Democratic Party that lacks the votes to stop Mr. Trump’s nominees on its own, the DeVos confirmation process has become a small victory, bringing national attention to the president’s views on education that Democrats believe are out of the mainstream.

The confirmation fight also provides an example of the power of social media to drive political events.

“I have heard from thousands—truly thousands—of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) in announcing that she would oppose the nomination. “They’ve contacted me by phone, by e-mail, in person.”

Mrs. DeVos, a 59-year-old billionaire, has spent decades pushing for charter schools, which are publicly funded but mostly privately run, and advocating for school vouchers, which provide public funds for children to attend private schools.

Those opposing Mrs. DeVos question her loyalty to the traditional public school system. Supporters say her 30-plus years of dedication to the school-choice movement and to widening educational options for low-income families makes her a good fit for the job.

Mrs. DeVos’s confirmation hearing has become a focal point in the battle.

One key moment was an exchange in which Mrs. DeVos said that states should decide whether federally funded schools have to meet the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures that students with a disability receive an education fitted to their needs.

When Sen. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.), whose son has cerebral palsy, followed up to ask whether Mrs. DeVos understood that the disabilities act was a federal law that applied nationally, Mrs. DeVos replied, “I may have confused it.”

The comments were a red flag to some educators, who worry the federal government will provide money to charter schools without holding them accountable for providing services mandated under the disability law.

In a second exchange, Mrs. DeVos said states should determine policies on guns in schools. Referencing a mention by Sen. Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.) of a grizzly bear fence surrounding a Wyoming school, Mrs. DeVos said, “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

Senate Democrats quickly posted video clips of the two exchanges on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Facebook page, where they have been viewed more than 34 million times.

Mrs. DeVos in the hearing “was not as articulate as she could have been,’’ said Ed Patru, spokesman for the group Friends of Betsy DeVos. “She doesn’t have an inordinate amount of experience fending off a dozen hostile, grandstanding senators whose singular goal was to trip her up and embarrass her.”

Mr. Patru said Mrs. DeVos cares more about the education of kids than about reaching the “self-serving political goals of teachers unions.”

Unions don’t deny they are playing a role but say such attacks are misplaced. “When you believe that the only way that children do well is if the people who are closest to them have no power and no voice, that is wrong,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Outside of Congress, the hearing catalyzed opponents of Mrs. DeVos.

In Maine, Talya Edlund, a fifth-grade teacher, recruited neighbors and others to lobby the Senate, in part because of Mrs. DeVos’s comments on students with disabilities.

“That to me crystallized that this was not someone who knew the law or had a depth of knowledge regarding the issues that serve our most fragile students,” Ms. Edlund said.

Jessica Tilli, a public-school teacher in Philadelphia, helped organize a rally outside the office of Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). “I have never done anything like this before,” said Ms. Tilli, who said she acted out of concerns that Mrs. DeVos isn’t qualified to lead the nation’s education system.

“She’s hostile to the ideal of public education,” Lizzie Scott, a mother of two public-school children in Brooklyn, said of Mrs. DeVos, whom she said she researched after the nomination. “It’s really upsetting to me that senators could think that she’s qualified for this job.”

Ms. Scott organized a letter-writing campaign, held a rally in New York, and started a Facebook page to speak out against Ms. DeVos.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which advocates for charter schools, commended Mrs. DeVos’s overall performance in the hearing. “She articulated a belief that every child deserves a quality education in a quality school, and that parents need to have a choice in making that goal a reality,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of the 2016 teachers of the year who had begun organizing in Florida decided to step up their efforts after the hearing. “It was like a live war room,” Mr. Royers said of their conversation on Facebook.

Mr. Royers contacted friends on Capitol Hill, who urged the teachers to move beyond posting comments to Facebook and Twitter. The message: hit the phones.

Their targets included two Republicans from rural states: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Ms. Murkowski of Alaska. Both said last week that they would vote against the nomination. Public schools in rural states receive an outsize share of federal funding designated for those serving low-income families and might be most sensitive to the potential for funds being diverted to charter or private schools.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com and Tawnell D. Hobbs at Tawnell.Hobbs@wsj.com

Who’s Afraid of Betsy DeVos?

January 17, 2017 by

Trump’s Education nominee is the top Democratic target.

Democrats are searching for a cabinet nominee to defeat, and it’s telling that progressive enemy number one is Betsy DeVos. Donald Trump’s choice to run the Education Department has committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.

Progressives and their media allies have spent the last week roughing up Mrs. DeVos in preparation for her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, which will feature the charms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Liberals claim that Mrs. DeVos, wife of former Amway president Dick DeVos, is unqualified to lead the Education Department because she’s never been a teacher.

Yet the same crowd howls that bankers shouldn’t be regulating banks. Which is it? Managing a bureaucracy isn’t like running a classroom, though both require a steely resolve. Most Education secretaries have been former teachers or school superintendents—not that student test scores are better for it.

Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence. Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, whose family is a major Democratic patron, served as President Obama’s Commerce secretary. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!

The DeVoses have donated tens of millions of dollars to charity including a children’s hospital in Michigan and an international art competition in Grand Rapids. They’ve also given to Christian organizations, which the left cites as evidence of concealed bigotry. Yet education has been their main philanthropic cause.

During the 1990s, they patronized a private-school scholarship fund for low-income families and championed Michigan’s first charter school law. In 2000 they helped bankroll a voucher initiative, which was defeated by a union blitz. The DeVoses then turned to expanding charters, which have become Exhibit A in the progressive campaign against her. Unions claim Michigan charters are inferior to the state’s public schools and that 80% are run for profit.

These claims are spurious. Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative. Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.

Two studies from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013, 2015) found that students attending Michigan charters gained on average an additional two months of learning every year over their traditional school counterparts. Charter school students in Detroit gained three months.

Eighty-percent of Michigan charters utilize a private education service provider. Yet only about half are operated by a for-profit entity, and almost all of these are mom-and-pop businesses run by Michigan residents. While unions have fought to keep failing public schools open, Mrs. DeVos backed a 2009 law allowing the state to close public schools—charters included—that scored in the bottom 5% of the state for three consecutive years. Only seven of the 54 schools with two strikes in the past two years were charters.

The real reason unions fear Mrs. DeVos is that she’s a rare reformer who has defeated them politically. Prior to being tapped by Mr. Trump, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has helped elect hundreds of legislators across the country who support private school choice. Last year AFC and its affiliate groups spent $5 million on elections compared to the teachers unions’ $138 million. Yet 108 of the 121 candidates AFC supported won their races.

AFC has built a broad coalition that includes black and Latino Democrats, undercutting the union conceit that vouchers are a GOP plot to destroy public schools. In 2000 four states had private-school choice programs with 29,000 kids. Today, 25 states have vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education-savings accounts benefitting more than 400,000 students.

Even if they can’t defeat Mrs. DeVos’s nomination, unions hope to leave her so politically weakened that she won’t be able to implement her agenda. The character assassinations—e.g., that she supports anti-gay groups—are primarily intended to turn the bureaucracy and public against her.

Yet their nasty campaign reeks of political desperation. You know progressives have lost their moral bearings when they save their most ferocious assault for a woman who wants to provide poor children with the education they need to succeed in America.

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The Library Lockout at Our Elementary School

January 9, 2017 by

When the librarian was let go, parents volunteered to help. But that’s a union job only, we were told.

PHOTO: ISTOCK

My 6-year-old daughter, Scarlett, is a first-grader at A.N. Pritzker Elementary, one of 600 schools in the Chicago Public Schools system. Scarlett enjoys reading, but she has recently faced a serious problem getting the books she wants. The Chicago Teachers Union is preventing her and her classmates from using the school library.

Due to a combination of budget cuts and enrollment numbers that were lower than expected, Pritzker’s librarian was laid off shortly after this school year began. Without a librarian, Pritzker students aren’t allowed to use the library. Dozens of parents have offered to volunteer in the library to keep it open. There was so much interest that the parent-teacher organization created a rotating schedule of regular volunteers to help out.

But before parents could begin volunteering, a teachers union member filed a formal complaint with the school system, objecting to the parents’ plan. Several weeks later, a union representative appeared at a local school council meeting and informed parents that the union would not stand for parental volunteers in the library. Although the parents intended to do nothing more than help students check books in and out, the union claimed that the parents would be impermissibly filling a role reserved for teachers. The volunteer project was shut down following the meeting and the library is currently being used for dance classes.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the Chicago Teachers Union is an affiliate. In response to President-elect Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department, Ms. Weingarten said in November that “we have an obligation to all children in America.” One part of getting children the education they need, she added, is ensuring that parents have a voice in their children’s education.

The Chicago union’s actions do not match Ms. Weingarten’s rhetoric. How does forcing the closure of an elementary school library square with the union’s stated mission of fighting for children? How does opposing parents who want to volunteer their time so that children can check out books constitute giving parents the voice they need?

On its website, the Chicago union expresses concern at the “extremely limited in-school and life experiences” available to many poor and minority students. The union says it is focused on closing the “opportunity gap.” But by shuttering the Pritzker library the union is limiting experiences and creating an opportunity gap for the 47% of Pritzker students who come from low-income families, as well as the school’s nonwhite pupils—74% of the student body.

If history is any guide, the union will blame budget cuts for the library’s closure. City Hall deserves its share of criticism for not resolving the public school budget crisis, but the union is hardly blameless. During recent contract negotiations the union demanded that the Chicago Public Schools both provide pay increases and continue covering pension contributions that the city wanted teachers to begin paying for themselves. To avoid a strike, the city agreed to both demands. This only reduces the pool of money available to pay additional instructor salaries and maintain head count.

My daughter Scarlett misses her library books. So do her classmates. If the union has the students’ best interests at heart, it will withdraw its opposition to parents volunteering in the school library.

Mr. Hendershot is a lawyer in Chicago.

School Choice Saves Money

December 31, 2016 by

A study from Wisconsin adds up some of the economic evidence.

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PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Democrats opposed to school choice often claim that charter schools and vouchers siphon taxpayer money from traditional public schools. That’s rarely true because choice schools typically spend less per child. And now a study shows that Milwaukee’s landmark voucher program will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Readers may recall the story of St. Marcus Lutheran, one of Milwaukee’s top schools, which graduates about 90% of its students, more than 90% of whom come from low-income families. St. Marcus participates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and is in high demand. So when an empty public-school building came on the market in 2014 for an appraised value of $880,000, St. Marcus saw it as a chance to add a second campus for as many as 600 more students.

But the City of Milwaukee demanded a $1.3 million surcharge to compensate for what it said was the higher cost of school choice. St. Marcus had to walk away because it couldn’t afford the city’s surcharge for the building.

That’s when the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit that advocates for limited government and education reform, decided to look at the relative cost and benefits of choice schools. And, what do you know, it found that students participating in Milwaukee’s voucher program will provide the city, state and students nearly $500 million in economic benefits through 2035 thanks to higher graduation and lower crime rates.

Using data from a crime and graduation study by Corey DeAngelis and Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, the Milwaukee study finds that through 2035 Wisconsin will receive a $473 million benefit from higher graduation rates by choice students. More education translates into higher incomes, more tax revenue and a lower likelihood of reliance on government welfare or other payments. Meanwhile, greater economic opportunity also prevents young adults from turning to crime, which the study estimates will save Wisconsin $1.7 million from fewer misdemeanors and $24 million from fewer felonies over the same 20 years.

Progressives typically assert that social spending yields all sorts of economic benefits, yet they refuse to see the benefits that voucher programs and charter schools provide. Why not look at the evidence?