Betsy DeVos will promote the idea that parents should be able to choose where their children are educated—but the schemes should be done properly or not at all
Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook:
“In Michigan, we know firsthand how disastrous DeVos’ ideology is, as she has spent decades wielding her family’s money and influence to destroy public education and turn our schools and students over to for-profit corporations,” said Cook in a press release.
FOR those looking for encouraging signs about what a Trump administration might accomplish, the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary deserves a cautious welcome. The welcome is because giving parents choice over where their children are educated is a good thing. The caution because there have been enough failures in school reform to suggest that promising ideas can be discredited if done badly.
Both Republicans and Democrats suffer from blind spots on education reform. On the left there is a tendency to ignore bad public schools, pander to unions and indulge underperforming teachers. On the right the assumption is often that private is always better and that, once a voucher scheme has been set up, the work of school reform is done. The evidence suggests that what happens in the classroom is at least as important as the structure of the school system. This means recruiting and training teachers who give rigorous lessons and have high expectations of their pupils (see article).
Mrs DeVos has put money and effort behind vouchers, which parents can spend at private schools, and charter schools—public schools operating autonomously. In Michigan, her home state, the results have been poor. In a state where test scores have declined over the past decade, 80% of charters are below the state average in reading and maths. This is partly because Michigan ignored lessons from elsewhere.
The first of these is to exercise oversight. Milwaukee, the city in Wisconsin where school-choice was pioneered, began by allowing virtually anyone to open a school. This invited chancers, including a convicted rapist and a man who used taxpayers’ money to buy himself a pair of Mercedes-Benz cars. As a result, Milwaukee is now more careful about who can start a school. So is Massachusetts, which has some of the best charters in the country. Michigan, in contrast, has favoured quantity over quality: the state is home to three of the ten school districts with the highest share of charter students in America.
A second principle is that oversight remains necessary even when vouchers and charters are up and running. Although the absence of bureaucracy is one of the biggest advantages of such schools, light-touch regulation is not the same as no regulation. As Milton Friedman, patron saint of the school-choice movement, put it, schools must meet “certain minimum standards laid down by the appropriate governmental unit”. In New Orleans, which has a successful charter-school scheme, the school district is ruthless about weeding out poorly performing schools. Worryingly, Mrs DeVos led a campaign against preventing underperforming charters in Michigan from expanding.
As Friedman also knew, markets work well only if buyers have the data with which to make an informed choice. That leads to the third principle: schools receiving public money should publish facts and figures about their performance. The best gauges are based on pupil improvement and other measures of value-added, rather than raw test scores. Alas, Michigan’s charters are among the country’s least transparent.
Put your hands up for Detroit
America’s education system is decentralised: federal money makes up just under 9% of funding for secondary schools. But Mrs DeVos can still make a big difference. Federal dollars change behaviour at the margins: witness the impact of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top programme, which gives extra money to successful states. If states take the encouragement offered by the Trump administration to expand school choice, they should thank Mrs DeVos—then study how her home state could have done better.
Betsy DeVos’ brother Erik Prince, BlackWater CEO.
Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools – NY Times opinion
NEW ORLEANS — President-elect Donald J. Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has sent shock waves through the educational establishment. Understandably so, since this is a clear sign that Mr. Trump intends a major national push to direct public funds to private and charter schools. But this is more than just a political or financial loss for traditional public schools. It will also most likely be a loss for students.
The choice of Ms. DeVos might not seem surprising. Mr. Trump has, after all, proposed $20 billion to finance “school choice” initiatives and Ms. DeVos supports these ideas. Yet of all the candidates the transition team was apparently considering, Ms. DeVos has easily the worst record.
As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country. At least some of the other candidates for education secretary, like Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, led reforms that were accompanied by improved student results.
Consider this: Detroit is one of many cities in the country that participates in an objective and rigorous test of student academic skills, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The other cities participating in the urban version of this test, including Baltimore, Cleveland and Memphis, are widely considered to be among the lowest-performing school districts in the country.
Detroit is not only the lowest in this group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far. One well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools. The situation is so bad that national philanthropists interested in school reform refuse to work in Detroit. As someone who has studied the city’s schools and used to work there, I am saddened by all this.
The situation is not entirely Ms. DeVos’s fault, of course, but she is widely seen as the main driver of the entire state’s school overhaul. She devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West. It’s hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed. Schools there can do poorly and still continue to enroll students. Also, after more than a decade of Ms. DeVos’s getting her way on a host of statewide education policies, Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of five states with declining reading scores.
In contrast, consider the case of New Orleans, where virtually all the schools are charters. Here, the state has taken over about a third of charter schools because of poor results since the system was revamped in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Also, while the system initially had limited oversight and worked poorly, local leaders now take extensive steps to facilitate a fair process of school choice, help prevent schools from cherry-picking students and manage a centralized student expulsion system. In other words, the system provides some oversight to help ensure that families have good schools to choose from.
The New Orleans results have been impressive. In the decade after the reforms, the city’s standardized test scores have increased by eight to 15percentile points and moved the district from the bottom to almost the state average on many measures. High school graduation and college entry rates also seem to have improved significantly, even while suspensions, expulsions and the rate of students switching schools have all dropped. Detroit and New Orleans represent radically different versions of school choice — and the one that seems to work is the one that uses the state oversight that Ms. DeVos opposes.
New Orleans is also important because it is the only city in the country where we can compare the results for charter schools with the approach Ms. DeVos prefers even more — school vouchers. In a study my center released this year, researchers found that the statewide Louisiana voucher program had exactly the opposite result as the New Orleans charter reforms. Students who participated in the voucher program had declines in achievement tests scores of eight to 16 percentile points. Since many of these students received vouchers through a lottery, these results are especially telling.
Louisiana is one of two states where statewide voucher programs have been studied. In Ohio, the results were also negative (though less so). These statewide programs provide the best point of comparison for any national program that the new administration might propose.
This evidence should create a real problem for Ms. DeVos in her confirmation hearings. Fortunately, even if she is confirmed, the low level of federal funding devoted to education will limit the new administration’s ability to pursue these policies. Also, any real expansion of unregulated vouchers will require action both by state governments and by Congress.
But you don’t have to be in the educational establishment to be worried about where this is going. The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.