President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Betsy DeVos, a philanthropist and a strong supporter of school choice, as his education secretary. And although DeVos isn’t a household name, she could end up having a big impact on public school students across the country.
For evidence, just take a look at Detroit — a city where DeVos’ influence shows how an expansion of charter schools without the proper oversight can hurt the quality of education for low-income students.
Throughout DeVos’ career as a school choice advocate, she has aggressively pushed for the expansion of charter schools. Although many charter schools across the country benefit low-income families seeking an alternative to public schools, educational equity advocates often raise concerns that a lack of accountability allows less effective charter schools to thrive. And DeVos has been at the forefront of efforts to push against this accountability.
DeVos sits on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project, which advocates for its education reform priorities in the Michigan state legislature. This group is responsible for pushing the legislature to end its plans for a Detroit commission to regulate charter schools.
Sixteen years ago, DeVos, and her husband, Dick DeVos, also pushed for a statewide ballot initiative to amend the state constitution so that tax money could go toward private school tuition. Although this effort didn’t succeed, charter schools in the area expanded anyway. The state lifted its cap on the number of charter schools. Twenty-three percent of Michigan students did not enroll in their home public school district in the fall of last year, which allows students to attend charter schools or public schools outside their community, with 10 percent of students attending charter schools.
Now, Detroit has the second largest share of students in charter schools, at 44 percent, behind New Orleans. Each year, nearly $1 billion of taxpayer money goes to charter schools, but oversight is very weak, according to a yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press released in August.
The investigation, which looked at 20 years of charter school records, found evidence of wasteful spending, schools with poor academic records that continue to enroll students for years, and school staff using their positions to profit off of deals for themselves or others. It also found that many charter schools run by for-profit companies did not disclose how they spend taxpayer money.
Some states make it clear that charter authorizers are supposed to provide oversight and accountability to schools in exchange for revenue, but that is not the case in Michigan, The Atlantic reported. An Education Trust-Midwest report released in February found that Michigan charter authorizers “face almost no accountability” for their performance.
Another issue in Michigan is the involvement of for-profit companies in charter schools. The state allows a wide range of education institutions to create charters — such as school districts, community colleges, and universities — and receive 3 percent of the money that goes to those schools. They also get the huge benefit of being the only entities with the power to close schools that are underperforming. Now, for-profit companies operate 80 percent of charters in Michigan, according to The New York Times.
Given the fact that Trump himself ran a for-profit “university,” it’s easy to see why he would want an education secretary who has a record of supporting the involvement of for-profit companies in public education.
Although the average charter school student in Detroit is making greater gains than public school students in Detroit, data on proficiency in math and reading show that both charter school and public schools have a long road to improving students’ academic performance.
Only 17 percent of Detroit charter school students were rated proficient in math, compared to 13 percent of students in traditional public schools, according to Michigan Association of Public School Academies data released in 2015. Forty-three percent of Detroit charter students were rated proficient in reading compared with 39 percent of students in traditional public schools. Compared to the state average, these scores are still low. Eight in 10 Michigan charters had academic achievement below the state average in both reading and math, according to a Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University report.
The steady growth of charter schools in Detroit comes at a time when the Detroit Public School system is struggling financially. Last spring, DPS filed a lawsuit against the state claiming it violated the civil rights of students through its emergency manager law. The district has been run by emergency managers since 2009, weakening the authority of the board of education and allowing an unelected emergency manager to make decisions about school finances. In a separate suit filed against the state by Detroit schoolchildren, they claim lack of state funding in city schools has denied them literacy. Attorneys for Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials said there is no fundamental right to literacy for Detroit students.
Teachers have been bringing awareness to the issue of poor funding of Detroit schools in the form of protests. Last January, teachers protested the conditions of public schools and took photos of inedible food, damaged school buildings, and dead rodents and posted them on social media. Since then, there have inspections of schools, which confirmed that many schools were unsafe places for kids.
In the midst of all of these issues, DeVos has pushed for less regulation and oversight of charter schools and stated that public schools are failing children — all without advocating for better state funding of public schools.
David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, told The Detroit News that the choice of DeVos would be “devastating for public education.”
Hecker added, “She wants her million and billionaire friends to profit off of childhood education.”
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