Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools
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 studyfound 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 releasedthis 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.Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools - The New York Times: