In her first visit to a Detroit school as U.S. Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos argued that the school choice policies she champions have helped the city’s students.

“While too many students today still are not achieving at the levels that they can and should, there’s movement in the right direction,”  DeVos told reporters. “I attribute that to the fact that there are many more opportunities today for parents being empowered to choose and find the right fit for their students.”

There’s no question that some families in Detroit have gained access to higher-performing schools through Michigan’s extensive school choice policies, either attending a charter school or a traditional school outside of the city.

But students who choose these options more often end up in a worse school than they started in, according to one recent study. And the very act of choosing can have consequences. Detroit students frequently switch schools, often in the middle of the year, disrupting their academic development.

Academic results in Detroit lag behind Michigan’s test scores, which have fallen down national rankings over the last two decades.

While she visited students in the city last year, it was the first time DeVos toured a Detroit school since President Donald Trump named her the country’s top education official.

She chose Detroit Edison Public School Academy, which ranks as one of the city’s top performing schools on standardized tests. The school’s strict discipline and its focus on test scores and college have helped it win millions of dollars in grants from private philanthropies and the federal government.

DeVos visited three classrooms, introducing herself quietly to students and posing for photos before reporters were ushered out.

In a third-grade classroom crowded with reporters, Isabella Tysse prepped her students for DeVos’ arrival. “Listen to how Ms. Tysse says it, and you’re going to say it back in a whisper: Good morning Secretary DeVos.”

They repeated the line. “And then your focus is immediately back on Ms. Tysse,” she said. “Silent thumbs up if you understand the expectation.” A couple dozen thumbs went up.

DeVos, a native of western Michigan, has played a substantial role in shaping Detroit’s education landscape. As a major donor to Michigan’s Republican party over more than two decades, she has supported the state’s charter school law and helped fend off attempts to limit the growth of charters. Today, more Detroit students are enrolled in charter schools than in any U.S. city besides Flint or New Orleans.

Protesters outside of Detroit Edison Public School Academy, where U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was visiting, called for more school funding.
PHOTO CREDIT: Koby Levin

DeVos’ visit comes as she pushes for a federal tax credit program, called the Education Freedom Scholarship Program, that would refund families for money they spend on programs like private schools and apprenticeships.

Critics liken the program to vouchers that allow families to spend taxpayer dollars on tuition to private schools. In 2000, DeVos spent $4.75 million in support of a failed voter referendum to make vouchers legal in Michigan. Tennessee and more than a dozen other states have voucher programs. 

Asked why she visited a charter school instead of a school run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District, DeVos said she had “not yet” spoken with Nikolai Vitti, the district’s superintendent. She noted that the district’s test scores have improved since Vitti took the job two years ago.

Outside of the school, about 20 protesters called for more funding for Michigan schools, holding signs that read “Babies over billionaires” DeVos and her husband are worth about $2 billion, according to Forbes.

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the union for the Detroit district, said the policies favored by DeVos have hurt school funding.

“She along with people who think just like her have been the leaders in the divestment from public education, particularly here in Detroit,” he said. “Our children deserve much better.”

Told of the protesters’ message, DeVos replied tersely.

“I’d say that’s nonsense,” she said, adding, “I think we all need to focus on doing what’s right for individual students.”