Why Would Anyone Listen To Betsy DeVos On The Subject Of Education? It Can't Be Results.

If Detroit is the DeVos model of “success,” then our nation’s education system is doomed.
01/18/2017 02:07 pm ET
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

During the hearings on Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, the Republican Senator Richard Burr from North Carolina asked why people get all hung up on process, when they should be talking about “results.” DeVos agreed. I was hoping the committee might then discuss the results of DeVos reforms in Michigan and Detroit. Or anywhere else. How awesome is Detroit, which is overrun with charters? On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it is the lowest performing urban district in the nation. How awesome are Milwaukee and Cleveland, which have had vouchers and charters for more than 20 years? They barely top Detroit among the lowest performing urban districts in the nation.

Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.

Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.

While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.

Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

This morning I was on the NPR radio show from D.C. that used to be the Diane Rehm show but is now called “1A,” with Rick Hess of the DeVos-funded American Enterprise Institute, and he said that Detroit charters were outperforming Detroit public schools. As Stephen Henderson, the editor of the Detroit Free Press, wrote not long ago, the charters in Detroit vary in quality but many of them are failing and they are no better than the public schools.

Henderson deconstructed the CREDO studies that Rick Hess cited, and concluded:

In a city like Detroit, for instance, where, on average, students perform well below statewide norms, kids in charter schools should more quickly close their gaps than kids in traditional public schools.

Hypothetically.

The problem is they really haven’t. Not for 20 years, dating to the beginning of Michigan’s charter experiment.

CREDO also found that, for instance, 63% of charters statewide perform no better than traditional public schools in math. And in Detroit, nearly half all charters do no better than traditional public schools in reading.

Overall, about 84% of charter students perform below state averages in math; the number is 80% for reading. That tracks closely with the outcomes for traditional public schools.

The gains for charter students are also clustered, in many instances, in high-performing outliers. But because Michigan does not require charter operators to have proven track records before they open schools or do much to hold them accountable after their schools open, the number of underperforming charter schools far outweighs the high achievers.

In addition, the CREDO results need to be considered in the context of other data about charter schools.

The Free Press investigation of charter schools, for instance, revealed that even taking poverty into account, charter schools essentially perform the same as traditional public schools, and in some cases, a little worse.

If Detroit, which is still the lowest-performing urban district in the nation, is the DeVos model of “success,” then our nation’s education system is doomed.

Similarly, Michigan’s standing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has dropped, in some cases dramatically since 2003, not long after Michigan committed to “choice” as its strategy for reform. EdTrust wrote a report warning that the state was on its way to the bottom:

Among the 2015 NAEP results highlighted in the report:

• Michigan ranked 41st in fourth-grade reading, down from 28th in 2003.

• The state ranked 42nd in fourth-grade math, down from 27 in 2003.

• It ranked 31st in eighth-grade reading, down from 27th in 2003.

• It ranked 38th in eight-grade math, down from 34th.

Given these dismal results, why would anyone listen to Betsy DeVos on the subject of education? It must be the tens of millions of dollars she has donated to Republicans, including 10 of the 12 who sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committeee (HELP), which will judge her fitness to serve as Secretary of Education). It can’t be results.

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