Since President Elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as Education Secretary, Detroit schools, and DeVos, are suddenly receiving an onslaught of attention – virtually all of it unfair and obscenely biased. (“How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools” NY Times December 13, 2016)
This isn’t surprising, given that a primary source for information used in this “news” piece comes from the director of the Skillman Foundation, Tonya Allen.
Skillman has worked for more than two decades on education in Detroit and has yet to back a winning strategy for reform. After trying multiple times to develop an emergency management plan for the school system, Allen/Skillman conceived of a coalition of managers as a solution to the problem. But that plan would have simply restored power to the very people and groups in charge when the city went bankrupt – most notably the teachers unions, representatives from the UAW, numerous social service agencies and a smattering of local businesses.
One could argue that it wasn’t their fault that Detroit schools failed, so why not let them fix things? But the problem was bigger than that. Their failure then, and now, to see the limitations of a school district model created some 150 years ago – which vests all power in a central office bureaucracy and the contractual employees they are mandated to hire – was an impenetrable roadblock to success. A new model was needed, one that handed administrative authority to the people who ran the schools and gave parents the ultimate power over their children’s education.
“Their failure then, and now, to see the limitations of a school district model created some 150 years ago – which vests all power in a central office bureaucracy and the contractual employees they are mandated to hire – was an impenetrable roadblock to success.”
That model was the charter school model. Indeed, thousands of Michigan families embraced it during the first two years of the state’s charter law, which was passed in 1993. Parents rushed to put their children in schools that were ready to personalize student needs, and not be beholden to unions or bureaucrats who operate the same way, day in and day out, despite their record of performance, which, lest anyone forget, was a long, miserable litany of failure.
In 1993, around 20 percent of all individuals in Detroit over the age of 25 did not have a high school diploma, African-American high-school-aged males had a dropout rate of close to 45 percent; and according to a study by the National Institute for Literacy, 47 percent of all individuals in Detroit were functionally illiterate despite annual expenditures by Detroit Public Schools of nearly a billion dollars.
So after two decades of chartering in Detroit, as the city suffered through further turmoil (a convicted mayor and inept school board were replaced by state-appointed managers), the governor took on the fight to rescue the city from debt and save its schools. Two camps of people worked to influence those efforts.
On one side was the Skillman Foundation and its allies who saw this as an opportunity to put control back in the hands of the city fathers, put traditional public schools back in charge, and put charter schools out of business. Charter enrollment and locations would have been subject to the whims of the Mayor’s political appointees. Skillman’s plan would have stifled choice and propped up the failing traditional district’s finances at the expense of the only schools in Detroit which were actually serving the needs of their students – charter schools.
Standing in the way of Skillman and its friends were thousands of people who had developed, worked in, supported and advocated for charter schools, and had seen, first hand, their success. That’s the side with which Betsy DeVos was allied. And although Skillman’s Director argues that DeVos never came to Detroit, they had numerous communications about the deliberations over time.
Skillman’s coalition with the education establishment is not happy with charter schools and, by extension, with Betsy DeVos. It is their voice that is the basis for the negative press reports about charter schools in Michigan, the people and groups who lost their power to the parents and teachers attending and running those choice schools. A full 53 percent of Detroit’s school children now attend charter schools. Detroit charters outperform their traditional counterparts in each M-STEP subject area, and, of the top 25 Detroit schools in M-STEP math and ELA performance, 80 percent, and 84 percent respectively are charter schools. In fact, the success of these innovative schools is another reason that Michigan’s teachers unions are making a stink in the press: since 2012, they have lost nearly 30,000 members.
Was Betsy DeVos instrumental in helping to win critical victories in the state house? Yes. But that is no different than the millions spent and the years of relentless political pressure imposed by defenders of the status quo for decades — including the Skillman Foundation.
The only real difference is DeVos’ efforts yielded results that are actually making a difference in the lives of parents and children in Detroit and that offer real hope for the future.