In a 2016 op-ed for the Detroit News, prior to being nominated and confirmed to be the US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos gave her simplistic reason for the millions of dollars she had spent pushing the expansion of for-profit charter schools in Michigan. She still, even after years of contrary evidence, was claiming that free-market competition would magically make schools better.
Rather than create a new traditional school district to replace the failed DPS, we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids.
But, then later on in the article, she advocated for taxpayer money to be funneled to these for-profit charter schools through the use of vouchers.
We need reforms that provide better educational opportunities and improve academic outcome for our students. First, we should expand school choice so students could use state education funds at the public or private school of their choice.
So much for the magic of free-market competition. If for-profit charter schools, which were already being funded by taxpayer money, were simply better due to free-market competition, why would there be a need for more taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to be used to prop them up? This inconsistency becomes apparent the more you hear school reformers like Betsy DeVos speak. In a way, it gives up their game. They are not advocating for a system that they believe will actually provide better results for students. They are advocating for a system that does a couple of things, that, depending on their motivations, are more important to them than student achievement: providing a means by which private businesses can extract profit from taxpayer money, and/or breaking the political power of teacher’s unions (which tend to support Democratic politicians).
This is why the school reform movement has been so readily adopted by Republican Governors of late, whether it be Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, Eric Holcomb in Indiana, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, Rick Scott in Florida, Gary Herbert in Utah, Phil Scott in Vermont, Doug Ducey in Arizona, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and the list goes on.
Republican politicians didn’t suddenly hop on the charter school and school choice bandwagon because they were seeing tremendous results from where those reforms had been enacted. They saw a way to damage an organized group, the teacher’s unions, that tended to support their political opponents. And, quite possibly, they saw a way for their well-connected donors to get some of that sweet taxpayer money.
Now, why am I so sure they didn’t hop on the bandwagon because they were seeing tremendous results from for-profit charter schools? Because the results have not been tremendous. Take Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, for example. Michigan, by all accounts, is the state that has tried the most extensive project of allowing charter schools in the name of competition. Other states, like Minnesota and California, have tried charter schools to fit certain student niches (arts schools, for example) or in a collaborative way to upgrade a public school system. Michigan’s charter school push, on the other hand, has been all about competition. Provide a free-market component that will magically unleash competition to elevate the performance of all schools, is what was sold to the Michigan public.
The lack of regulation had the desired effect: Michigan became a boom state for a growing new education sector. By 2000, Michigan had 184 charter schools, by Miron’s count, more than any state but Arizona and California. In a 2002 book that Miron wrote with Christopher Nelson called “What’s Public About Charter Schools?” the authors consider two different charter models deployed by states: competitive and collaborative. While the collaborative approach encouraged the public and private sectors to “share innovations,” Michigan favored the other approach: “Engler wanted to lift public schools,” Miron told me, “but he believed in getting as much competition as quickly as possible. It became the Wild West state: Push, push, push.” While other states — Miron cited Ohio, Texas and Arizona — also emerged as exemplars of the “competitive” model, most have since reintroduced some regulation. “Michigan is still an outlier,” Miron said. “No state comes near us when it comes to privatization.”
It hasn’t worked. From that same 2017 article:
Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live. …
And in 2018, results for students are continuing to get worse:
August 29, 2018 – Just 44 percent of the students in grades 3-8 who took the English language arts portion of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) passed the exam.
That’s down from nearly 48 percent in 2015 — the first year the M-STEP was given — and marks the fourth year in a row more than half of the students weren’t proficient.
The news across the board wasn’t pretty:
- In math, 37.4 percent of the students in grades 3-8 were proficient, up from 37 percent in 2015.
- In social studies, 23.8 percent of students in grades 3-8 were proficient, down from 26 percent in 2015.
- On the SAT — the college entrance exam taken by 11th graders — 36.9 percent of students met the benchmark for being considered college- and career-ready in math, while 57.8 percent met that standard in reading and writing. That compares to 2016, where the numbers were 36.8 percent in math and 60.1 percent in reading and writing.
- The total average SAT score was 1000.1, out of a possible score of 1600. In 2016, the first year the SAT became part of the high school exam, the total average score was 1000.8.
- On a separate high school social studies exam, the percentage of students who were proficient was 48.5 percent, up from 43.9 percent.
The sooner we rid our country of these school choice and for-profit charter school advocates, and their lies about free-market competition, the better. Our children are depending on us.
But until we do, these for-profit charter schools will march on. There is taxpayer money out there for them to turn into profits.
August 30, 2018 – The Michigan Association of Public School Academics (MAPSA) announced Thursday nine new charter schools are opening across the state this fall.