Will DeVos Learn From Detroit’s School Choice Mistakes?

With Donald Trump’s recent nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, people in the education world have picked sides faster than in a Super Bowl office pool. A common subject of debate, raised by Doug Harris in a New York Times op-ed, is the education track record in Ms. DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Ms. DeVos is an unabashed supporter of school choice, including the expansion of for-profit charter schools and vouchers. In Michigan, an aggressive choice policy has resulted in schools of wildly varying quality. Harris asserts that Michigan represents choice run amok, “a triumph of ideology over evidence.” Choice advocates in the state have come rushing to their schools’ defense, often sounding like union representatives protecting their weakest members.

At CRPE, we’ve spent time studying Detroit’s and Michigan’s choice systems. We’ve looked at student outcomes, visited schools, and spoken to choice advocates and district officials. Most importantly, we’ve interviewed and surveyed parents. We have been clear that families are, for the most part, experiencing a chaotic, low-quality, and largely unregulated charter school environment. But we’ve also been clear that the facts don’t support neat and tidy conclusions. In Michigan, the problem hasn’t been choice itself: the failure is in the way choice has been executed.

Here are some of the messy facts:

  • In many states, laws made charter school growth slow and painstaking, in an attempt to ensure that new charter schools prove their worth. Michigan, on the other hand, created a fast-growing set of charter schools largely run by for-profit management companies and overseen by a fragmented array of colleges and universities that seemed more interested in collecting oversight fees than in ensuring the schools were any good.
  • The performance of charter schools in Detroit is, with few exceptions, disturbingly poor. But the performance of traditional public schools there is a national disgrace. Consider National Assessment for Educational Progress scores. In 2013, just 4 percent of 4th-graders in Detroit public schools were proficient in math; just 7 percent were proficient in reading. Detroit’s charter schools, which represent about 50 percent of the city’s public schools, are not doing very well, even by their own admission. Only about half outperform even the low bar of district schools. Students with special needs, those with severe behavior challenges, and others are often not served by Detroit charter schools at all.
  • Detroit families like having choices and don’t want to return to being held captive by the worst school district in the nation. However, families are extremely impoverished, and often are dealing with trauma and violence. Parents are in no position to drive their children across town to a better school, or to deal with a chaotic and confusing marketplace of schools. As one woman told us, “Listen, it’s all I can do to make sure my son gets to school every day. The state or city should make sure that school is good.”
  • More and better oversight is needed. Fast. Far too many failing schools, both charter and district, remain open in Detroit. In some neighborhoods, every single school is graded “F.” Too many schools remain open, period. Most schools serve too few students and therefore get too little funding to provide an ambitious instructional program. National school networks with proven results can’t attract enough students to make it worth their while to open new schools in Detroit.
  • Real accountability for individual schools is desperately needed, but even that isn’t enough. Some official or entity in Detroit needs to be responsible for identifying neighborhoods that have no quality schools, and be able to press school operators (both district and charter) to open new schools where they are most needed. Some official or entity needs to invest heavily in training and recruiting strong teachers and leaders, and address transportation, enrollment, special education, and other barriers that prevent families from choosing schools other than the one closest to their home. Someone must invest in transforming the school district where half of Detroit’s students are still being educated.

Politics on both sides have impeded these kinds of solutions. There was a proposal to create one oversight agency (the Detroit Education Commission, or DEC) for all schools in Detroit, overseen by the mayor. But for-profit lobbies, a defensive charter association, and protectors of the school district went to war over the bill, and a legislature sympathetic to school choice picked the winner. The DEC was killed. Charter schools have come under slightly higher state scrutiny, while the district is left to continue withering into financial and academic despair.

The uncomfortable truth is, things are both better and worse in the Motor City as a result of school choice. Ms. DeVos and her advisors will be ineffective in supporting choice if they fail to recognize and learn from Detroit’s failures. Choice proponents should know better than anyone that markets, especially those serving disadvantaged and inexperienced customers, don’t function without good information and big investments in new capacity.

But the argument that more regulation and accountability will fix everything is just as problematic. Detroit has been both a public and private meltdown. Regulation has failed and markets have failed.

In the coming years, urban education must be open to the power of choice and alert to its dangers. We all must own up to implementation mistakes and commit to problem solving over ideology. We must actively challenge partisan arguments and be skeptical about plausible but incomplete solutions like greater school accountability. Those looking for easy yes or no answers should stick to the upcoming Super Bowl pools.

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