DeVos and Detroit

Can Betsy DeVos be blamed for the state of Detroit’s schools? What you need to know

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Betsy

Donald Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s next secretary of education doesn’t live in Detroit. She doesn’t routinely work in Detroit, either.

But Detroit is nonetheless sure to be on the agenda when billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos sits down Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee for the start of her confirmation hearings.

That’s because DeVos, who lives in western Michigan, has been a leading architect of the free-market-style school choice policies in Michigan that many Detroit school supporters blame for the dire state of Detroit schools.

Critics assert that Michigan charter schools can open wherever they want, shut down without notice and operate with less oversight than charters in some other parts of the country.

DeVos defenders say she’s created educational opportunities for families that otherwise wouldn’t have had them, noting that Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers.

But this much is clear: When the DeVos hearing starts at 5 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, viewers are bound to hear arguments from both detractors and defenders that are driven more by ideology than fact.

With that in mind, here are answers to some key questions that could come up about Detroit and DeVos:

Are Detroit schools really that bad?

Well, yes, at least if you believe the test scores. Detroit students scored far below kids in other struggling urban districts on a national exam. And though Detroit families have a lot of “school choice” options including district schools, charter schools and suburban schools that take kids from other districts, most schools in the city are low performing. Of more than 200 schools in Detroit — roughly half of which are charter schools — the vast majority were near the bottom on the state’s last top-to-bottom school ranking based on test scores. Just ten schools — six selective district schools and four charters — were in the top half.

 

Has Betsy DeVos called for improvements for the Detroit Public Schools?

Not quite. Last winter, as the Michigan state legislature pondered a massive financial rescue plan designed to prevent the state’s largest school district from falling into bankruptcy, DeVos urged the state to abolish the district. “We must acknowledge the simple fact that DPS has failed academically and financially – for decades,” she wrote in an op/ed in the Detroit News.

Dissolving a school district is not unheard of in Michigan where several smaller districts including Highland Park, which is wholly surrounded by Detroit, have been essentially turned over to charter school operators.

Detroit schools were turned over to a series of state-appointed emergency managers starting in 2009 but DeVos asserted that district is too far gone to fix. Her political organization took to Twitter with the hashtag #EndDPS.

 

Are Detroit charter schools any better than district schools?

Some are. Some not so much. A major study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that Detroit charter school students do score better on average on state exams. The researchers matched charter school students with district school students who had the same demographic profiles, then looked to see who scored better. The study found that 8 percent of kids in charter schools did worse than their district peers while 60 percent of charter school kids bested the district kids.

That’s not saying much, given the rock-bottom scores in Detroit’s district schools, said James Woodworth, a senior research analyst for CREDO. But, he said, charters are providing a stronger option.

“People are very correct in saying that the academic performance of charter schools in Detroit is still lower than the national average but it’s better than the non-charter schools,” Woodworth said.

 

So what makes Michigan charter school policies so controversial?

Michigan has a charter school law that puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open. The state does have the ability to close schools for poor performance, but it generally has not done so (though that is likely to change soon). The setup has created an environment in which Detroit has more schools than kids — an estimated 30,000 classroom seats sitting empty. That has forced district and charter schools to aggressively compete with each other for students, then slash programs or increase class sizes when too-few kids lead to tighter budgets.

“Detroit is the foremost example of the adverse consequences of a poorly regulated education market,” said Michigan State University professor David Arsen. “I say this as an advocate for school choice. Choice is good but  … in Detroit you have a system that is chaotic.”

 

Has Betsy DeVos supported this ‘chaotic’ environment?

DeVos supporters note that she’s a strong advocate for school accountability. She’s pushed for an A-F letter grade system and for strong consequences for schools that earn low marks, including both district and charter schools. But her critics say she has blocked serious attempts to bring order to the chaos.

Notably, last year, when a broad coalition of Detroit schools advocates pushed for a mayoral commission that would oversee the opening of new district and charter schools and would be able to coordinate things like enrollment and transportation, DeVos and her allies saw the effort as an attack on charter schools and moved to block it. Members of the DeVos family spent $1.45 million in June and July — $25,000 a day for seven weeks — supporting lawmakers who voted against the commission.

DeVos supporters, however, note that though the final bill passed along party lines without support from Detroit lawmakers, it did provide $617 million for the main Detroit school district and did include some measures to improve quality. Among them: a new requirement that the universities that authorize charter schools become accredited. The law also included a requirement that all district and charter schools in Detroit be shuttered after repeated years of failing test scores.

 

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.