Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is The American Prospect's senior writing fellow. 

Recent Articles

Vouchers, Home Schooling, Virtual Education -- Conservatives’ Wish List

At a recent national conference, right-leaning education advocates spelled out a sweeping agenda that could shift the nation’s focus sharply away from public schools. 

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Former Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Washington D.C. in June 2015. T hese are heady times for free-market education reformers. Republicans control Congress, GOP governors will lead 33 states, the vice-president elect is a champion of private school vouchers, and a conservative Supreme Court might soon have the power to thwart teacher union power irreparably. Best of all for the school choice crowd, billionaire GOP donor Betsy DeVos, a leading advocate of education reform, has been nominated to head up the Education Department. The excitement of education advocates with conservative policy priorities was palpable last week at the annual reform conference hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), a group founded by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential contender. More than 1,000 people from across the U.S. gathered at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Washington, D.C., for two days of panels, plenary sessions...

The Right Way to Assess Charter Schools

(AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
(AP Photo/Becky Bohrer) Protestors gather on the steps of the state Capitol in Juneau for a "Save Our Schools" rally in February, 2014 to speak out on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public money to be used for private and religious schools. O n November 8, Massachusetts residents went to the polls not only to cast their vote for president but also to weigh in on a hotly debated question regarding charter schools. The ballot initiative —which proposed lifting the state’s cap to allow establishing up to 12 new charters or expanding existing charters annually—had generated a heated battle for months, with voters inundated by mailings and advertising from both sides. About $34 million was spent on these efforts, making them easily the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in state history. Teacher unions provided nearly all the money to fight the measure, while out-of-state donors and Boston’s business community shelled out most of the money in support. The...

Education Reform Democrats on Donald Trump

November 17: Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, issued the following statement: (bolded emphasis mine)

It is, generally speaking, an honor for any person of any political persuasion to be asked by the president of the United States to consider a Cabinet-level appointment, but in the case of President-elect Trump, DFER encourages no Democrat to accept an appointment to serve as Secretary of Education in this new administration. In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

Foundational education reform principles—from raising standards and strengthening accountability, to expanding public-school choice, to furthering innovations in teacher preparation and support, and advancing resource equity—all find their roots in a progressive commitment to ensuring that all children, particularly our most vulnerable, have access to schools that enable them to fulfill their potential.

This progressive commitment to equitable education policy also goes hand-in-hand with intersectional issues that affect our kids. While effective school policies are vitally important, so too are the environmental conditions affecting children and families. A child who is homeless; a child without access to food or health care; a child whose parent cannot find steady work; a child whose dad is locked up for years on low-level drug offenses—each of these situations dramatically compromise the life chances of our children.

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

For these reasons, no Democrat should accept appointment as Secretary of Education, unless and until President-elect Trump disavows his prior statements and commits to educating the whole child and supporting the communities and families they depend on.

November 22: Shavar Jeffries expounds on DFER’s statement in a Washington Post op-ed. Excerpts highlighted below:

Based on the positions he has taken, President-elect Trump’s administration will undoubtedly etch away at the progress we’ve made towards creating a more equitable public education system under President Obama—and irreparably damage our children’s futures.

Some have concluded that Trump’s stated support for increasing funding to the federal Charter School Program, an important priority for progressive reformers, ought to suggest reconsideration. High-quality public charter schools change lives throughout the country, and we applaud proposals to increase appropriations to that program. But as much as we enthusiastically support resources to grow and expand any high-performing public school, including public charters, that by itself in no way counterbalances the grave, generational challenge Trump’s retrograde policies and rhetoric present to America’s schoolchildren, particularly our most vulnerable low-income urban and rural children.

We wish that our president-elect represented the broad mainstream of leaders from both parties who have championed a vision of progressive education reform and a commitment to basic social policies that are currently working for kids and communities across the nation. But the stated policies and rhetoric of the president-elect run contrary to our most fundamental values. Until Trump expresses a willingness to educate the whole child and invest in the communities that nurture our children, no Democrat should accept appointment as secretary of education. In doing so, that person would become an instrument of an agenda that both contradicts progressive commitments to educational equity, and also threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.

November 23: Shavar Jeffries issues an FAQ to “flesh out their reasoning” on what DFER’s official statement, and his Washington Post op-ed meant. Highlights excerpted below:

Q: Why did DFER issue the statement? 

We’re not saying that Democrats should not, when possible, work with President-elect Trump on education issues, but rather that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education.

We believe it is critical to the long-term sustainability of the work we care about to make a clear distinction between the progressive education reforms that we support, and the agenda put forward by President-elect Trump.

Q: Wouldn’t a Democratic secretary be in a position to get Trump to change those positions? 

Perhaps anything is possible, but the president-elect has made his positions and discriminatory values clear over the last 18 months. Furthermore, the appointments Trump has made to his administration so far—including white nationalist Steve Bannon as a senior advisor and Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, whose views on race are so problematic that the Senate previously failed to confirm him for a judgeship, do not show signs of moderation.

Much more likely is that the appointment to secretary of a Democrat who is identified with our issue would do irreparable damage to our movement’s credibility with the progressive leaders and voters we hope to engage, and could be seen as giving implicit support to an agenda that attacks the very communities we aim to serve. 

Q: Does this mean you would rather someone incompetent be in this position?

That’s a false choice. There are many competent Republicans who would be a good fit for a Trump administration. Our goal, as Democrats who support education reform, is to work within our party to build support for reform policies. For the reasons stated above, we do not believe a Democrat should accept the appointment. 

Q: Does this mean you won’t work with the Trump administration?

As noted earlier, we draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump. Where appropriate, we will work with the administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.  

But our mission is to build more support among Democrats for reform—a critical agenda in light of the outsized power of the teachers’ union within the party—and to cultivate bipartisan support for reform by growing the number of Democrats who support pro-child policies. Over the next four years, we will work with the hundreds of Democrats we’ve supported and helped to elect at the federal, state, and local levels to support positive policies for kids and to oppose negative ones.

November 23: Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, issued the following statement: (bolded emphasis mine)

DFER congratulates Betsy DeVos on her appointment as secretary of education, and we applaud Mrs. DeVos’s commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools.

However, DFER remains deeply concerned by much of the President-elect’s education agenda, which proposes to cut money from Title I and to eliminate the federal role on accountability. These moves would undermine progress made under the Obama administration to ensure all children have access to good schools. In addition, our children are threatened by many of the president-elect’s proposals, such as kicking 20 million families off of health care, deporting millions of Dreamers, and accelerating stop-and-frisk practices. We hope that Mrs. Devos will be a voice that opposes policies that would harm our children, both in the schoolhouse and the families and communities in which our children live.

Finally, regardless of one’s politics, Trump’s bigoted and offensive rhetoric has assaulted our racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, causing millions of American children to perceive that they are less than full members of our communities. We hope Mrs. DeVos will push the President-elect to disavow such rhetoric.

Note: It’s not clear how DFER defines a “commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools.” The DeVos family spent thousands of dollars this past summer to nix the Detroit Education Commission, a legislative reform that would have provided increased oversight and accountability to the city’s drastically failing charter sector.

Fining Teachers for Switching Schools

A Prospect report finds a number of charter schools have non-compete clauses in their contracts, and sue teachers who move to other schools.

(AP Photo/Mel Evans)
(AP Photo/Mel Evans) Kindergarten teacher Liz Niehaus talks with her students at KIPP Thrive Academy, in Newark N.J. L ast month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on the story of Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher who received a $6,087 bill over the summer from his former employer—a suburban charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. Kowalski had worked at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School for seven years, but with three young children and another one on the way, he said he wanted to find a teaching job that would offer something more stable than at-will employment. Mystic Valley now seeks to collect thousands of dollars in “liquidated damages” for Kowalski’s departure. Every spring, the charter school requires its employees to sign one-year contracts for the following school year, but since many new teaching positions don’t open up until May, June, and July, this puts teachers in a tough position if they want to consider looking for...

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