In Michigan, a test case for US public schools under Trump?
Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and prominent Republican fundraiser, has been among the nation’s foremost advocates for school choice. Her home state offers perhaps the best preview of free-market style education policies.
YPSILANTI, MICH.—Last fall, Ben Edmondson, the charismatic new superintendent of the long-struggling public school district in Ypsilanti, Mich., received an unusual visitor. It was a representative from a for-profit charter school management company, offering to buy a district building that had previously been listed for sale.
“The guy comes in and says, ‘We’ll offer you $1 million,’ ” Dr. Edmondson recalls. “ ‘That’s more than what you want.’ ”
Ypsilanti had been losing some 300 kids per year, about half its student population. Most enrolled in area charter schools under Michigan’s Schools of Choice law, which allows K-12 students to use state funding to enroll in other public districts or charter schools. The visiting representative told Edmondson a new charter school in the area could enroll 300 in its first year.
“I will not sell any building here to any organization that doesn’t help make this city better,” he says.
From his embattled vantage point, charter schools have robbed many of Michigan’s public schools of money, students, and vitality, all while showing doubtful evidence of academic achievement and virtually no accountability for the money they spend.
“A charter school’s not going to make [this city] better,” he scoffs. “Are you kidding me?”
But next week, congressional confirmation hearings will begin for a woman who has precisely the opposite vantage point. Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and prominent Republican fundraiser, has been among the nation’s foremost advocates for giving parents the broadest possible options for where to educate their kids – whether in charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling. She is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of Education.
Since her selection, analysts and families across the country have been wondering what a DeVos tenure might mean for the nation’s 50 million public school students. Her home state of Michigan offers perhaps the best preview of the free-market style education policies that could soon be getting a wider roll-out across America.
To supporters, the reforms she’s championed have allowed parents to “vote with their feet” and find the school that best meets their children’s needs. Moreover, they say, for-profit management has injected a valuable competitive business ethos.
But to critics, the state is impoverishing traditional public schools for very little gain – if any. The state exercises very little oversight over the $1 billion it gives to charter schools. Right now, Education Trust-Midwest points out in a new report, "not even the governor has the authority to shut down chronically low-performing charter authorizers in Michigan."
The clearest losers, experts say, are the state’s neediest students – the ones other districts or schools don’t want, either because of their academic performance or the cost of meeting special needs. As money flows elsewhere, they are left in schools that lack the attention or funding to make much-needed improvements.
“The result of this, I believe, could be a dramatic reduction of dollars to our poorest schools and a transfer of taxpayer dollars to the free market,” says David Kirkland, a professor of urban education at New York University Steinhardt. “It’s detrimental to our most disadvantaged students.”
Michigan is, in many ways, a test case for how far school choice can be pushed.
- It is home to two of the three US cities where a majority of children attend charter schools (Flint and Detroit, with New Orleans as the third).
- About 80 percent of charter schools in the state are run by for-profit companies, according to a report by the National Education Policy Center. That’s more than twice the percentage of for-profits found in any other state.
- About 10 percent of Michigan’s school-age children attend charter schools, compared with about 5.1 percent nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Another 13 percent attend a traditional public school in another community, according to MLive.com, under the state’s Schools of Choice program.
“We have the highest percentage of for-profit organizations running charter schools in the country,” says Joshua Cowen, an associate professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “We tend to think of Michigan as a deregulated state.”
DeVos’s influence in shaping Michigan’s educational experiment has been significant.
Strong advocate for school choice
The daughter of a wealthy Michigan businessman (her brother founded military contractor Blackwater), she married Richard DeVos Jr., who would later head Amway, the multibillion home sales company founded by his father. Together, the couple emerged as stalwarts of the state’s conservative establishment. She twice chaired the Michigan GOP; he lost a gubernatorial bid in 2006.
But the DeVoses’ bigger influence has come through lobbying and spending on conservative In Michigan, a test case for US public schools under Trump? - CSMonitor.com: