U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will make her first announced charter school visit since taking on her new role when she tours SLAM Charter School in Miami this week.
But before the scheduled Thursday visit to SLAM, the secretary made an unannounced stop with first lady Melania Trump and Queen Rania of Jordan at an all-girls charter school, Excel Academy, in the District of Columbia.
DeVos’ visits come as charter advocates watch to see how the highly scrutinized cabinet official—an outspoken advocate of vouchers and tax credit scholarships for private schools—addresses school choice in her work.
Like many charter schools, SLAM‐an acronym for Sports, Leadership, and Management—drives its curriculum through a focused lens to engage student interest. Students at the 6th- through 12-grade school overlooking the Miami Marlins ballpark take coursework in their choice of three career academies: sports medicine, sports media production, or sports marketing and management.
SLAM’s high school received a C grade in 2016 in Florida’s school accountability system. The middle school also received a C.
And SLAM is also part of a growing number of charters that have started with support from celebrity backers. The rapper Pitbull helped open its original Miami location in 2013, and he has since celebrated the openings of another campus in West Palm Beach and one in Nevada.
Pitbull, who has described himself as both a charter school advocate and a charter school parent (three of his six children attend charter schools), spoke at the National Charter School Conference in 2013. Here’s a video of that speech, where he discusses SLAM.
Charter School Concerns
SLAM is also an example of concerns from DeVos critics—groups like teachers unions—about the “privatization” of public education. While it’s part of Mater Academy, a charter network of more than 20 schools, the school is operated by the for-profit management organization Academica, which has faced criticism for conflicts of interest related to its finances. From Buzzfeed:
A Miami Herald investigation in 2011 found Academica was embroiled in a complex and controversial real estate scheme. Its founder and president, Fernando Zulueta, owns a wide swath of real estate companies —firms that also lease tax-exempt space to many of Academica's schools, acting as their landlords. Academica schools pay tens of thousands of dollars in rent, sometimes over 20% of their revenue, well above the area average, to Zulueta-connected real estate holdings, the Herald found, deals that are meted out by nonprofit governing boards with close ties to Academica.
DeVos on Charter Schools
The Trump administration’s school choice strategy is still emerging and, though both President Trump and DeVos have spoken favorably about charter schools, some advocates for the sector have expressed both wariness and concern about the administration’s larger agenda for K-12 education.
In late March, Trump proposed a federal budget that would cut the U.S. Department of Education’s overall budget by 13 percent, about $9 million, while doubling current federal aid for charters. In response to that proposal, leaders of three prominent charter school organizations wrote in a USA Today op-ed that the administration needs to think more broadly about education funding.
We see charters as an important part of a much broader effort to revitalize public education in America. Already, in cities such as New York, Denver, St. Louis and Houston, we see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts. These partnerships, we hope, will only grow in the future. But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in 'choice' schools.
DeVos has also spent more time advocating for private school choice since taking on her role. Before visiting SLAM, she will visit a Christian school Thursday morning, her second private school visit as secretary. You can track all of DeVos’s school visits on this map, which will be regularly updated by the Politics K-12 team.
Photo: Pitbull performs at 93.3 FLZ FM’s Jingle Ball at Amalie Arena on Dec. 18, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.