Q&A with Bruce Baker on Charter School Expansion and President-Elect Trump’s Nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos

Contact: Afsheen A. Shamsi
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Q&A with Bruce Baker on Charter School Expansion and President-Elect Trump’s Nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos

Bruce Baker, research professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, was recently named among the nation’s 100 most influential university-based education scholars by Education Week.

Education Week recognized Baker for championing issues related to charter school expansion. This Q&A includes his insights on issues pertaining to charter schools and President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

Q: In 2016, you authored a report for the Economic Policy Institute on the expansion of charter schooling. What are your concerns about such expansion?

I’m concerned about the creation of dual, competing systems of schooling emerging primarily in urban spaces and low-income communities.

The creation of these dual systems can lead to duplicative and inefficient expense, including duplicative administration, inefficient transportation, and inefficient use of space. In many cases, charters were taking out high interest debt using public dollars to acquire private assets – this, while some districts are closing and selling off assets, — often below market value. If the charter schools close up shop many of these urban districts simply don’t have the buildings (or land) to take those kids back.

Charter advocates often conflate the “liberty” of choice with equity. But the reality is that expanded chartering often leads to vastly unequal choices. There’s significant variation between charter and district schools as a result of student sorting, and resource availability, and often, there’s even more variation among the “have” and “have not” charter operators.

Finally, the hybrid private/public governance and management structure of charter schooling compromises student and employee rights, including due process rights for students under discipline policies. Policymakers ask 40 percent or more of children in low income and minority districts to choose which rights they must forgo — without letting them know.

Q: How does charter expansion differ across the country? How are children being impacted?

Some states – New Jersey, for example – have had tighter controls over the expansion of charter schooling. They’re also reasonably well funded and have more equitably funded state school systems. This is in stark contrast to states like Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, and Florida. New Jersey has significant shares of children in Newark served in schools run by relatively well respected charter operators. But we still have the dual system problem, with the related inefficiencies and the inequities. We also have some smaller communities where niche charter schools are creating their own patterns of segregation. This is a good time for New Jersey to lay out a cautious path forward – first, to make sure we maintain and manage quality, equity and transparency in our larger cities; and second, to consider whether it’s a good idea to be promoting dual systems in smaller districts.

Q: President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was one of the architects of the Detroit Charter School System and is a proponent of school choice. Are you concerned about the future of education policy should she be confirmed?

Yes. If New Jersey represents the good side of charter expansion, Michigan represents the bad, with Detroit being an extreme case. I point out in my report that it was completely illogical to promote expansion of charters in a city with a rapidly declining school-aged population in a period when the state repeatedly underfunded the district. But the broader issue is the complete lack of oversight and regulation, and the resulting rapid growth of more questionable and less transparent providers.  States should not move to the Michigan model that Betsy DeVos lobbied so hard to build and protect.

Q How would you advise President Trump’s secretary of education on achieving an equitable system of excellent schooling?

I think any secretary of education has limited influence over equity and adequacy of schooling. These are primarily state issues.  Citizens and state policymakers need to watch out for attempts to conflate “choice” with “equity.” Whatever the system, whoever the providers, equitable and adequate financing are prerequisite conditions.  We and our representatives also need to carefully consider when and whether it’s worth chasing after federal incentives that might be thrown our way with strings attached. This was done with Race to the Top as well as No Child Left Behind waivers. This money is relatively small and short-term, and the strings may cause long- term disruption and damage.