It’s no surprise that President-elect Donald Trump has picked Michigan’s Betsy DeVos to be the new U.S. Secretary of Education. She’s been passionately interested in schools and school choice for decades and she and her husband, Richard DeVos, are among the highest profile donors to the Republican Party in the nation.
A firm supporter of charter schools and school vouchers, Mrs. DeVos gets wide credit for her staunch philosophy that all students deserve access to a quality education, whether through traditional public schools or not. The obvious question is how Michigan’s educational record on charters (heavily influenced over the years by her views) casts light on her likely policies when running the Department of Education.
More coverage: Betsy DeVos’ Michigan legacy
Historically, Republicans and Democrats have very different reactions to education reform programs like charters. Democrats have a tendency to ignore bad public schools, defer to teacher unions and excuse bad teachers. Republican ideology requires that private (i.e. choice) is always better than public (monopoly), opposes most oversight, and believes the Michigan Educational Association (MEA), the main teachers’ union, is a dangerous force for mediocrity. Both sides tend to let adults argue while in effect ignoring the kids.
Nationally, 42 states and the District of Columbia now offer some kind of schools-of-choice program. Across the country, results from charter schools, which began in Minnesota in 1991, vary widely from state to state. The best and most reliable data show that charters in Michigan do not substantially out-perform public schools, and where they do the difference is very slight.
Unfortunately, Michigan does not seem to have followed examples of states with the best charters. The reasons for our lagging are pretty clear. One key to success is tough oversight. As profiled in previous Bridge Magazine articles, Massachusetts has some of the best charters in the country, resulting from tough state oversight of startups and continuing performance results. New Orleans, with a wide network of generally successful charter schools, is tough on oversight and aggressive in getting rid of underperforming schools.
Michigan, however, is regarded as the “wild west” of the charter school movement. According to The Economist magazine, “Dozens of different outfits, including public universities, can authorize charters in exchange for a cut of the revenues going to those schools.
“Operators can therefore shop around until someone lets them set up a school … No one holds the authorizers accountable, although they oversee $1 billion in taxpayers’ money every year.”
There are more than 300 charter schools in Michigan, more than double the number there were in 2000, suggesting high parental demand for alternative schooling for their children.
In Detroit, more students are in charters than the city’s traditional public schools, in large part because of the traditional public schools’ horrible reputation. And while a few charters in Michigan perform at the top of the charts, still more are not succeeding.
In 2013-14, for example, 70 percent of Detroit’s charter schools ranked in the bottom quarter of all Michigan schools, according to the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit education policy and advocacy organization. Charters (especially in Detroit) are also accused of poaching students from public schools, thereby diverting more than $7,000 per pupil in funding away from the traditional schools.
Last May, a proposed Detroit Education Commission, with the power to approve or deny location for new schools (including charters) was shot down in the legislature – evidently in response to Republican leadership pressure, reportedly at the behest of the DeVos family’s Great Lakes Education Project and other pro-charter lobbies.
Lots of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit companies. Many do not make available to the public their financial performance, even though they are funded by taxpayer dollars. The risk of abuse in such cases is obvious.
Michigan does not require charter operators to have a proven track record before they are authorized to open schools. Moreover, our state does relatively little to discipline poor performers; the number of underperforming schools exceeds by far the high achievers, according to a study by the Detroit Free Press.
These factors make Michigan an easy target for reformers and charter critics, including the MEA.
So far as I know, the DeVos family has been consistent and passionate in both its commitment to excellent schools for all children and to public charters. Fine. That’s great -- in theory.
But the family’s past record of giving lavishly to Republicans and advocating for little or no regulation for charters makes them an easy target for political criticism.
To me, it would make sense if Betsy DeVos would consider taking steps to markedly improve the level of oversight over Michigan charters and work for release of private charter companies’ financial statements while she is awaiting her confirmation hearings.
Not only would that likely improve the performance of charter schools in this state, but it would also make her confirmation easier and less aggressively partisan. Those are things you might think the Trump Administration, Ms. DeVos, and all of us might be grateful for.