The people who best know the education advocacy work of Betsy DeVos, the billionaire tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be his education secretary, are in Michigan, where she has been involved in reform for decades.
Many pro-school-choice groups have praised the choice, saying DeVos will work hard to grow new programs that give parents more school choice. But public education advocates say that they fear she will help propel America’s public education system toward destruction.
The Detroit Free Press has written a number of articles about DeVos’s education record in Michigan. Here is an important piece looking at what a DeVos Education Department could be expected to do, written by someone who has watched her work for some time. He is Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Free Press, where this first appeared. He gave me permission to republish it.
By Stephen Henderson
In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.
What remains in short supply is quality.
In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.
On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.
Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.
For students enrolled in schools of choice — that is, schools in nearby districts who have opened their doors to children who live outside district boundaries — it’s not much better. Kids who depend on Detroit’s problematic public transit are too far away from the state’s top-performing school districts — and most of those districts don’t participate in the schools of choice program, anyway.
This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.
And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.
President-elect Donald Trump has made a number of controversial cabinet nominations already. But none seems more inappropriate, or more contrary to reason, than his choice of DeVos to lead the Department of Education.
DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools.
She is, in essence, a lobbyist — someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them.
For 20 years, the lobby her family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to parents and children.
DeVos is a believer, and a powerful influence wielder for the special interest she has championed. But that doesn’t make her the right pick to helm an entire arm of the federal government. Wealth should not buy a seat at the head of any policy-making table.
That is true especially in public education — a trust between government and the people that seeks to provide opportunity for those who wouldn’t otherwise have it.
Supporters call Betsy DeVos an “advocate” who cares for children. And she may be that.
But the policy expression of that concern has been one-sided, and as much about establishing an industry as it is about kids.
The DeVoses have helped private interests commandeer public money that was intended to fulfill the state’s mandate to provide compulsory education. The family started the Great Lakes Education Project, whose political action committee does the most prolific and aggressive lobbying for charter schools.
Betsy DeVos and other family members have given more than $2 million to the PAC since 2001. GLEP has spent that money essentially buying policy outcomes that have helped Michigan’s charter industry grow while shielding it from accountability.
This summer, the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million over two months — an astounding average of $25,000 a day — to Michigan GOP lawmakers and the state party after the Republican-led Legislature derailed a bipartisan provision that would have provided more charter school oversight in Detroit.
GLEP also pushed hard — and successfully — to lift the cap on charter schools a few years ago, even though Michigan already had among the highest number of charters in the nation despite statistics suggesting charters weren’t substantively outperforming traditional public schools.
And in 2000, the DeVos extended family spent $5.6 million on an unsuccessful campaign to amend Michigan’s constitution to allow school vouchers — the only choice tool not currently in play in Michigan.
Even if Betsy DeVos ceased her substantial contributions to pro-school choice lawmakers, or to GLEP’s PAC, what credibility would she have in a policy job that requires her to be an advocate for all schools? Would her family divest from the PAC if she were Secretary of Education? Rein in campaign spending? And even if it did, how could she credibly distance herself from her history as a lobbyist?
About those outcomes
Beyond the conflicts, there are also deep questions about Betsy DeVos’ substantive understanding of education policy.
As a private citizen, she’s free to hold any belief she wants, and to promote her beliefs however she likes, regardless of how it comports with fact or outcome. But as Secretary of Education, DeVos would be expected to help set standards, guide accountability and oversee research in a way that benefits children, through outcomes, not one particular interest or industry. And more important, the U.S. Secretary of Education must understand the value of both high-performing charters and traditional public schools.
She has no track record of working along those lines, and no experience that suggests she’s even interested in it.
Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters.
We’re a laughingstock in national education circles, and a pariah among reputable charter school operators, who have not opened schools in Detroit because of the wild West nature of the educational landscape here.
In Michigan, just about anyone can open a charter school if they can raise the money. That’s not so in most other states, where proven track records are required.
In other states, poor performers are subject to improvement efforts, or sometimes closed. By contrast, once a school opens in Michigan, it’s free to operate for as long as it wants, and is seldom held accountable by state officials for its performance. Authorizers, often universities, oversee operation according to whatever loose standards they choose.
And in Michigan, you can operate a charter for profit, so even schools that fail academically are worth keeping open because they can make money. Michigan leads the nation in the number of schools operated for profit, while other states have moved to curb the expansion of for-profit charters, or banned them outright.
The illusion of choice
The results of this free-for-all have been tragic for Michigan children, and especially for those in Detroit, where 79% of the state’s charters are located.
A yearlong Free Press investigation found that 20 years after Michigan’s charter school experiment began, Detroit’s charter schools have shown themselves to be only incrementally stronger, on average, than traditional public schools. They have admirable graduation rates, but test scores that look nearly identical to those of public schools.
The most accurate assessment is that charter schools have simply created a second, privately managed failing system. Yes, there are high-performing outliers — a little more than 10% of the charter schools perform in the top tier. But in Detroit, the best schools are as likely to be traditional public schools.
DeVos and her family have not been daunted by these outcomes. It’s as if the reams of data showing just incremental progress or abysmal failure don’t matter. Their belief in charter schools is unshakable, their resistance to systematic reforms that would improve both public and charter schools unyielding.
They have also pushed hard on schools of choice, where districts open their borders to kids from other jurisdictions.
In concept, it could be a great equalizer: Children from poor districts could attend schools that have many more resources. But in practice, it has played out quite differently. In districts that participate in choice, white and more affluent parents have fled as poorer, minority kids have come into their schools, exacerbating de facto segregation, according to a report by Bridge Magazine.
This newspaper has been, and will continue to be, an advocate for successful charter schools, and for educational choice as one way — but certainly not the only way — to improve this state’s school landscape.
But it’s impossible to imagine such improvement will be aided by an education secretary who is so willfully impervious to the relevant data. Instead, Betsy DeVos’ lodestar has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it’s not operated by government.
Charter school advocates like DeVos reject any criticism of charters as a defense of the status quo. But that’s a gross and partisan distortion, especially for people like me.
I’ve made the most personal endorsement possible by sending my two children to charter schools in Baltimore and here in Detroit. In both cases, we’ve chosen high-quality charters; in Detroit, the best choices were far scarcer than in Baltimore. And to get into the high-performing school we chose in Detroit required an extraordinary effort. I have the income, the transportation and access to be sure my kids get the best opportunity available.
Most Detroit parents don’t enjoy those same advantages, and they are stuck choosing from among a sea of mediocrity or worse.
What Detroit needs are better, high-quality choices — public, charter, whatever.
But DeVos and her family have stood in the way of improving what we have. They’ve stood for the charter industry and its middling results, over our kids.
I’m certain she’ll try to make the nation’s charter landscape look more like the chaos we face here in Detroit, and less like it does in states like Tennessee or Massachusetts or Maryland — all much better performers who have tighter reins on charter creation and proliferation.
Her lobbying hasn’t been good for Detroit, or Michigan.
It won’t be good for the nation.