Betsy DeVos, the president elect’s choice for Education Secretary, has spent millions of dollars through her philanthropic and advocacy efforts fighting to expand educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, including African-American and Latinos. But as her Senate confirmation hearing nears, a number of prominent and influential civil rights and Latino organizations are determined to block her appointment.
While these efforts are unlikely to succeed, the opposition makes clear that some Latino advocacy groups are prepared to fight the incoming Trump administration every step of the way and have little interest in working with an education secretary who has supported expanding the cap on public charter schools and increasing private school choice. America’s powerful teachers’ unions see those policies as weakening support for public schools. The National Education Association, a 3 million-member strong special interest group headed by Latina Lily Eskelsen Garcia, recently described DeVos as a “horrible pick.”
Still, with many Latino students continuing to struggle to graduate on time and read at grade level, a number of Latino organizations hope DeVos will usher in new and bold ideas or build upon reforms that have managed to break through union opposition.
Charter schools, for example, are wildly popular in states like California where nearly half of all students are Hispanic, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). Nationwide, support for charter schools — which are public schools that operate with greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability — draw support from upwards of 85 percent of Latino families, according to some polls. That suggests that union opposition to charter school expansion may fall on deaf ears.
Beyond the growing number of Hispanic students enrolled in charter schools, there is also evidence that Hispanics are performing better in these schools. According to NAPCS President and CEO Nina Rees, the numbers speak for themselves. “In Texas, IDEA Public Schools [a local charter school network] serves more than 30,000 students: 95 percent of whom are Hispanic, and 99 percent of whom graduate on time with a diploma,” Rees told Opportunity Lives. “These are more than numbers — they’re real students, and real lives impacted by dedicated charter school educators.”
Crystal Felix-Clarke is among the real life success charter school stories. A former social worker and public school teacher in New York’s mainly Dominican neighborhood, Felix-Clarke is now the President and CEO of Path Academy, a charter school operating in the metro Atlanta area serving a student body that is 80 percent Latino.
“A school like this changed my life,” Felix-Clarke said. “We seek out charter schools in the Latino and immigrant communities to change the trajectory of our children’s lives.”
Many Latino families are also taking advantage of tax scholarship programs and nascent policies like Education Saving Accounts (ESAs) that allow parents to have a greater say on how and where to spend state education dollars.
“Latinos are some of the strongest supporters for Education Savings Accounts,” said Matt Frendeway, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group.
But with so much at stake — including millions of federal taxpayer dollars — groups like the liberal National Council of La Raza are prepared to fight the expansion of ESAs and school choice programs. In a joint-statement with other groups including the National Center for Transgender Equity and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the National Council of La Raza expressed their opposition to DeVos, citing her support for school choice and connections with anti-LGBTQ groups and those that seek to limit a woman’s right to healthcare.
Ultimately, educators such as JoAnn Gama, superintendent for IDEA Public Schools in Texas, hope that opponents of the DeVos nomination will be able to look beyond politics to appreciate the success of school reforms in areas of high poverty and diminished opportunities. Since opening its doors back in 2001, Gama tells Opportunity Lives, that “every single student for the last nine years has been accepted into college.”
Gama added that while IDEA is not actively weighing in on the DeVos nomination, “it’s always nice to have folks in Washington, D.C. that are friendly towards charter schools.”
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega.