In 2007, candidate Barack Obama stood before the National Education Association and made it clear that he supports testing, accountability, choice and even merit pay. Teachers unions did not endorse him in the primary and, after winning the general election, he chose political appointees who support his policies. That’s the way it works. Although Donald Trump said little about education during the 2016 campaign, he did say that
he supports school choice in all forms, including charters and vouchers. So, no one should be surprised that President-elect Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos, shares his views on school choice. Progressives of all stripes—including those who support school choice and those opposed—are uniting to oppose DeVos, but they are fighting the wrong battle. The fight that should matter most to progressive advocates for children is accountability. DeVos
does not have a great record on accountability in her home state, where she lobbied heavily and spent more than a million dollars to defeat a bill that would have held charters more accountable. She has said little about accountability under the
updated 2015 federal education law, which she will have to enforce if she is confirmed. Progressives, in particular teachers unions, joined with the Tea Party and other local control zealots to weaken federal oversight and push accountability back on states. In doing so, however, they have paved the way for unregulated school choice to expand. Accountability is the tool to keep choice in check. Private schools eager for voucher students and the dollars they bring will not want a robust accountability system that forces them to test students and meet performance targets. Many public charter schools, especially the weaker ones, don’t like accountability either because it exposes their shortcomings. The best charters, however, like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy, and Noble Network in Chicago, welcome accountability. Whether it is based on test scores, graduation rates, college enrollment or other measures of success, these high-performing public charter schools are proving that low-income kids can achieve on a par with middle- and upper-income kids. DeVos will likely be approved with or without Democratic support and school choice, in various forms, will move forward. And, the people most thankful will be many of the low-income families represented by progressive elected officials at the federal, state and local level. Those parents want and deserve better educational options. But more important, they want results. They want to know if their kids are learning and if they are on track to college. Low-income parents don’t like testing any more than any of us but they want the peace of mind that comes with verifiable proof of learning, which is why accountability is the issue that really matters, regardless of where you stand on choice. Today, charters serve about 6 percent of public school students while vouchers, education savings accounts and private school tax credits serve less than 1 percent. For the foreseeable future, it is hard to see the choice sector serving more than 10 percent of the public school population. There simply aren’t that many high-quality private or charter school seats available. Most students will remain in traditional public schools. While progressives are divided on the issue of school choice, they are united by a belief that government exists to protect those who can’t always protect themselves: students of all ages, immigrants, people of color, and low-income families. Regardless whether your goal is to protect kids, limit low-quality school choice or expand high-quality choice, the answer is still the same: a high bar for accountability. Currently, each state is developing its own accountability plan for review by the federal government. It’s expected that the Trump/DeVos administration will take a light touch and approve these plans, which means the real fight to protect children will be at the state and local level as accountability is designed and implemented in schools and classrooms. By embracing rather than resisting accountability, progressives will both limit the growth of low-performing charters and unregulated private school vouchers, and, more important, honor their values of a more equitable, just and effective education system.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with