Arizona charters excited by DeVos nomination, public schools wary

Arizona charter school advocates are excited by President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of school-choice champion Betsy DeVos for secretary of Education, but public school advocates worry they will be overlooked in a push for school choice. (Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters)

WASHINGTON – Public school advocates in Arizona are withholding judgment – for now – on school-choice champion Betsy DeVos, who faces a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday on her nomination to become the next secretary of Education.

“Perhaps when she realizes she’s responsible for where 80 percent of American parents send their kids, public schools, she’ll work to improve all of them,” said Cave Creek Unified School District Superintendent Deborah Burdick.

But charter school advocates say DeVos has been improving education for all students with her push for school choice, something they hope to see more of from the Education Department under President-elect Donald Trump and DeVos.

“She (DeVos) doesn’t believe any kid should be trapped in an underperforming school,” said Kim Martinez, Arizona spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children, an organization dedicated to school choice that DeVos led until last year.

DeVos is the only witness scheduled for the Senate hearing. But her background and her advocacy on both the federal and state levels has been hailed by charter school advocates in Arizona, where the 547 charter schools in operation give the state some of the highest percentages of charter enrollment among states.

Eileen B. Sigmund, CEO and president of the Arizona Charter School Association, is hopeful that DeVos’ confirmation will lead to more charters. The association’s board voted unanimously in December to endorse DeVos’ nomination.

Sigmund said she hopes a DeVos-run Education Department would expand the Charter School Program grant, which Arizona has been receiving for several years. As need increases, however, finances must, too, Sigmund said.

She explained that charter schools do not “get paid” until their doors are open, even though most expenses – the building, hiring teachers and other costs – must be covered up front. The grant helps offset some of those costs of opening charter schools.

But Mark Joraanstad, executive director for the Arizona School Administrators, is concerned that DeVos will, in fact, expand financial support of privatized education, which could in turn “increase the move in Arizona toward school vouchers.”

Joraanstad said there is no real mechanism for overseeing where parents actually spend the money they get under the voucher program now, much less under an expansion. Beyond that, he said, academic accountability is lacking because the privately owned institutions are not required to take standardized tests.

Misty Arthur, the executive director of the Arizona Federation of Teachers, said she does not see the value in increasing federal or state funding of privatized education.

“The education system does need a lot of work, but I don’t know why we need to privatize education,” said Arthur, who has been a teacher for 17 years. “Charter schools are not performing any better than public schools.”

She said she hopes that DeVos will benefit all realms of Arizona education: public, charter and private. But she remains concerned that “politicians” are not prioritizing properly when it comes to funding education.

“Education is always the first to get cut,” Arthur said. “That’s why we are in the position we are in now … They don’t take it (education) seriously. Education is in desperate need. We’re at an all-time high for teacher shortage.”

Martinez believes that DeVos’ confirmation would benefit all Arizona students, especially Hispanic and Native American children who are “stuck” in underfunded, underperforming schools.

“She (DeVos) doesn’t believe any kid should be trapped in an underperforming school,” Martinez said.

Matt Frendewey, national spokesman for the American Federation for Children, said he is confident that DeVos will benefit schools if she becomes the next Education secretary.

“She is fully qualified and absolutely ready for the job,” Frendewey said. “She understands the urgency of reforming our education system now.”