An Open Letter to Appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos

Opinion | Policy and Government

An Open Letter to Appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos

By Anthony Kim     Jan 7, 2017

An Open Letter to Appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos

Over the last fifteen years, I have been directly involved in supporting a diverse mix of charters, virtual schools, and public school districts. All of it with a lens around expanding opportunities around choice, voice, path and place to create the best possible outcome for those our decisions impact most: the students. My work has exposed me to philanthropy, non-profit policy organizations, public schools, charter networks, and state departments of education where I have seen both success and failure when change was not implemented correctly.

Betsy, this is why I am writing to you today, as you embark on your mission to “make American education great again” or, as I believe, prepared for the future. As the first schools we supported at Education Elements were charter schools, it is important to first establish the tremendous respect I have for the level of innovation we have seen come out of these establishments. I am neither against well-run charters, nor am I against parents choosing the best educational opportunities for their children, but I am cautious of overly promoting school choice when it comes at a cost to millions of other students in America.

Endorsing more choice and adding more schools will not be enough to make education better for all children. But that does not mean we can’t do more. There are measures we can take to improve the public schools we have now, those where the majority of students in this country attend, and I would like to offer a stepping point by highlighting a handful of key areas in public education that need your attention.

Differentiating rural districts vs. urban districts

I believe that competition is good and will admit that in many places charter schools have catalyzed school districts to think differently. DC Public Schools is a perfect example and a place I’m quite familiar with. Yet there is a difference in how much opportunity a charter or voucher option may create in urban areas like Washington DC, Oakland or Houston, versus those in rural or small communities where there may not be any additional opportunities at all. In fact, there are some rural districts where students travel an hour by bus just to get to a traditional public school—and the distance to a charter or private school could be twice as long or more. To help create a more equal playing field for both rural and urban districts, federal and state policies need to support different conditions of these districts. Even with massive amounts of money going into charter schools around the country, we only have an enrollment of 2.5 million students—very few of which are in rural communities. Efforts to increase enrollment are fine, but we still need to address the 50 million students who don’t attend charter schools or have private school options because of where they live.

Increasing the pipeline of high quality individuals entering education

Districts and charter networks are facing the pressures of a national teacher shortage. Frankly, the education sector is generally an underpaid industry. While organizations like Teach for America provide engaged and high quality individuals to school districts and charter networks alike, it’s really become the modern Peace Corp and a stepping stone for other careers. As a result, these individuals are only available for a limited time and turnover is high. At the same time, I continue to hear that schools of education are not properly preparing the teaching workforce to support student-centered and self-directed learning. Schools of education need to make changes to their curriculum to properly prepare teachers to meet the needs of student of a different generation and a new workforce.

Helping districts increase innovation by loosening perceived policy constraints

I have seen districts that are able to change without a lot of policy alignment, while urban districts which are under much more scrutiny need specific policies to support change and innovation. Districts like Hartford Public Schools benefit from the flexibility of being a choice district, where families are not bound by property lines to determine which school they attend. Fulton County Schools in Georgia got charter district status from the state and is working with 100 schools to experiment with new innovative personalized learning models. Finally, districts like Spring Branch ISD are getting "District of Innovation" status to give them some freedoms to reorganize their work without being bound by legacy policies, and hopefully be an example for other districts in the state. We need to give districts room to innovate and evolve.

I suspect that you will think differently about the challenges in education than others have in the past, and perhaps these three areas of focus provide some perspective to some approaches that haven’t been considered. There are over 50 million students in school districts, compared to the 2.5 million in charter networks and 1 million in private schools, and they are the ones who truly need you now. We need to empower these 50 million and the schools that serve them by creating equitable and high quality opportunities for all, and how we address the needs of different segments of the school districts across the country must be differentiated to be successful.

Anthony Kim (@anthonx) is founder and CEO of Education Elements and the author of “Personalized Learning Playbook, Why the Time is Now

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