The problem with DeVos' education agenda

Op-ed: Betsy DeVos promoted charter schools in Michigan even as the state's academic performance declined.

Newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, has used her considerable wealth to promote charter school expansion in her home state for more than two decades. According to Politico, she and her husband have made over $2 million dollars in campaign contributions to support candidates who favor school choice and charter schools.

While promoting charters, she has failed to acknowledge that as their numbers have grown in her home state (there has been a 20 percent increase in the number of charter schools there since 2011), Michigan has seen a drop in its national academic ranking. In a report last year by Education Trust-Midwest on Rebuilding Michigan's Broken Public Education System, the study's authors wrote, "the state's K-12 system is among the weakest in the nation and getting worse. In a little more than decade, Michigan has gone from a fairly average state in reading and math achievement to one of the bottom ten states."

A 2014 investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that students in the city's traditional schools, on average, "perform slightly better on standardized tests even when poverty levels are taken into account." The report concluded that the laws regulating charters are among the least stringent in the nation "allowing board members, school founders and employees to steer lucrative deals to themselves."

The proliferation of charter schools nationwide, 2,000 new ones in the past five years, has created what has been called a "Wild West" educational environment where there is little regulation or accountability. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform addressed this concern in a 2014 study that found "Chartering has become a growth industry, and in many cases, rapid expansion has replaced innovation and excellence as goals… State laws, regulations, and oversight have not kept up with this changing dynamic."

(Maryland was one of the last states to allow charters in 2003. Of the 53 in the state, 33 are in Baltimore City. According to a report for the State Department of Education by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy, charter schools here have not experienced the financial and administrative problems from mismanagement or misappropriation of funds that have made headlines in some other states.)

Another of Ms. DeVos' priorities is to allow public dollars to be used to pay private school tuition. Students receive a "voucher" to attend a school of their choice. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of a voucher program. Unfortunately for students, these programs are not having the desired effect.

Kevin Carey, director of education policy for New America, a non-partisan think tank, wrote in the New York Times last month, "a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who have received them." In Indiana, for example, voucher students who transferred to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement in mathematics and saw no improvement in reading. Researchers found similar results in Louisiana and Ohio.

The Maryland General Assembly put $5 million in last year's budget to fund the governor's request to set up voucher programs. A review at the end of the year found more than three quarters of the 2,500 students who received vouchers were already attending private schools when they enrolled in the voucher program. (No report has been done to date on academic performance).

Ironically, Republican opposition to President Obama may make it difficult for the Trump/DaVos team to push their agenda. In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to reduce federal overreach in education during the former president's second term. The ESSA law shifted much of the responsibility for control of education programs away from the secretary of education to the states.

Congress also decided to continue to allow state and local governments to have the final say on school choice. The secretary will have a hard time pressing her pet projects in 50 state capitals.

The Trump administration must have been taken by surprise by how much political clout the pro-traditional school activists were able to muster in such a short time as they came one-vote short of blocking her confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Even though the president has not tried to woo this population, polls show that a majority of Americans have a positive view of their community school.

As the demand grows for a skilled labor force that can compete in the global marketplace, the question is: How will the Trump/DeVos team address the needs of the 50 million students who attend traditional public schools and will make up the bulk of this workforce? The nation's future depends on the answer. 

Jim Campbell (jimcampbell222@comcast.net) has served as the education chair in the Maryland House of Delegates and as a member of the Baltimore City School Board.

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