On February 22nd, YES Prep’s CEO, Mark DiBella, along with leaders from other high-performing charter leaders, met with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Semiannually, charter school leaders from across the country gather in Washington D.C. to advocate for issues important to our schools and communities. On this occasion, charter leaders were advocating for continued funding of the CSP, a highly-competitive charter school program grant, which is awarded to high-performing charter schools that are replicating and expanding. The grant has been a major part of YES Prep’s expansion strategy. The group of charter school leaders was also advocating for DACA protections. We spoke to DiBella about the meeting.
Can you give us an overview of the meeting with Secretary DeVos?
I was selected, along with four other charter leaders, to meet with Secretary DeVos for 45 minutes. We started the meeting with an explanation and brief history of our charters, the scope of our impact, and our growth plans.
We spoke to her about the Title IX executive order about trans students, which had been implemented as a joint order with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. We asked her specifically about the impact on transgender students, and she agreed that it was important for her to protect the safety of all kids and their identities.
We also shared why DACA is so important to us. Her response was cordial but non-committal. She talked about how it was not part of her jurisdiction.
Finally, we discussed our desire for her to continue to reserve federal funds for charter schools. Philosophically, Secretary DeVos believes that the states should have as many rights as possible and that the allocation of federal funds is one of those rights. We asked that the allocation of that funding stays centralized, as part of the Department of Education. This would ensure that charter schools that are in less charter-friendly states can still apply for those grants and that funds would not get embroiled in state-level politics. Based on our growth plans, we encouraged her to work with members of Congress to approve at least 100 million (growing to 150 million over the next couple of years) to be carved out for charter school expansion and replication.
What are some of your takeaways from this conversation that you want to share with the YES Prep community?
Many conversations lately about Secretary DeVos and the current administration have lumped charter schools in with voucher programs under the broad heading of “school choice.” I want to emphasize that YES Prep believes in public school choice with accountability. My biggest concern with school vouchers is schools that would receive public funding without the associated public accountability. The growing body of research, including work from the Education Trust, shows that, on the aggregate, student achievement actually regresses in schools that are funded by vouchers and that the vast majority of vouchers currently go to religiously-affiliated schools. Another thing that is worth emphasizing is that with or without vouchers, YES Prep has to remain wholly committed to making sure families choose us.
Lastly, I want our staff and families to know that we are not alone in this advocacy work. YES Prep, along with other Texas charter schools, work with Texans for Quality Public Charter Schools, a non-profit that lobbies on the behalf of our students, families, and schools. Additionally, over 100 leaders of organizations from across the country (myself included) signed a letter that was hand-delivered to Ivanka Trump in support of DACA. We have reason to believe that the broad show of support for DACA from these organizations is one of the reasons that this executive order has not yet been rescinded.
What do we know about the new administration’s approach to policies for and impact on our work?
There is still far more that we don’t know than what we do know. We do know that the administration is committed to significantly expanding choice—especially for children from underserved communities. We also know that the administration has an expressed antipathy towards “government-run” schools. This means that we can expect a significant push to privatize educational options for children. It should be noted that in Secretary DeVos’s home state of Michigan, 84% of all of the charter schools are “for-profit” charters. We also know that the administration is committed to deferring to states and local communities on as many things as possible, including control of public schools. Finally, we currently have no clarity about the administration’s commitment to civil rights responsibilities in our schools.
How will the new proposed budget impact our work?
First and foremost, it’s critical to note that the administration’s proposal is just that—a proposal. As with all previous proposed presidential budgets, this budget will go through significant revision as it’s finalized. Therefore, all of my conclusions are based on what is in the proposal, which will certainly change. If approved in its current state, the proposed budget would 1) gut Title 2 funds; 2) add significant support for schools of choice, including charters; 3) seriously cut higher education student aid programs (e.g. Pell grants); and 4) cut Medicaid and other healthcare programs that provide funding to districts who serve children with specific medical needs.
What are the next steps?
We will be closely monitoring upcoming legislation that will impact our students such as SB6, which is being called “the bathroom bill.” There are also two separate house bills that involve facilities funding. Last summer, the Texas Supreme Court even said that the school funding system has “immense room for improvement,” so I want to make sure that the Texas legislature hears the message that we believe that the school finance system in Texas desperately needs broad reforms and also needs specific charter reforms. Over the next few months, I’ll be traveling to Austin frequently in order to testify for facility funding and protections for our students.