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
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

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.

 

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.