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First grade students learn sizes at Eisenhower Elementary on Sept. 30, 2016 in Flint, Mich. Flint is one of three US cities, including Detroit and New Orleans, where a majority of students don't attend traditional public schools.
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In Michigan, a test case for US public schools under Trump?

values and ideals

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.

  • Trevor Bach
    Contributor

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.

Edmondson declined.

“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 causes – particularly education reform. In 1993, she helped orchestrate Michigan’s initial law change to permit charter schools. In 2000, she was the driving force behind a Michigan ballot measure – rejected by voters – to change the state’s constitution to allow voucher programs that include religious schools. She also orchestrated a successful 2011 effort to lift a state cap on the number of allowed charter schools.

Her primary goal, she has said, is for parents to have as many choices for their children as possible – vouchers for private schools, privately run charter schools, online charters, homeschooling, and education savings accounts.

“What we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the ZIP code of their family’s home,” she told Philanthropy Round Table in 2013.

DeVos’s supporters argue that many of Michigan’s schools – especially in Detroit and Flint – have a troubled history that predates charter schools. And they argue that it’s simplistic to assume that Michigan’s policies will be rolled out nationwide.

“DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and student success before politics,” Daniel Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, wrote in an opinion piece.

But while the motives of Michigan school choice advocates may be good, researchers and journalistic investigations have found serious flaws with the execution.

A comprehensive 2013 Stanford University report found that 80 percent of the state’s charters actually perform worse than traditional public schools. While students opting for charters tend to be more disadvantaged than traditional public students, analyses have also found that charters perform slightly worse even when accounting for poverty levels.

A Detroit Free Press investigation found that Michigan’s lack of oversight and accountability also contributed to abuses like nepotism and management companies buying buildings and then charging their own charter schools above-market rent.

“Michigan’s laws are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics,” the newspaper concluded. “Taxpayers and parents are left clueless about how charter schools spend the public’s money, and lawmakers have resisted measures to close schools down for poor academic performance.”

Detroit as cautionary tale

Detroit, in particular, is widely seen as the nation’s biggest public education disaster. Only 1 in 4 public school students now attends a traditional Detroit public school.

One study showed that charters slightly outperform the city’s traditional public schools. But an explosion of new schools has also greatly depleted traditional public schools and stranded thousands of students without the ability or means to enroll in a high-performing school that may be far away.

There are certainly high-performing charter schools in Michigan – with Richard DeVos’s own, the West Michigan Aviation Academy, enjoying an excellent reputation. But in other states, such as Massachusetts and New York, charters have proven a far more successful alternative for poor kids in part because they are bound by strict performance requirements, education experts say.

An effort last year by Detroit’s mayor to implement similar accountability measures ultimately failed in the legislature. DeVos lobbied against it.

While there hasn’t been enough research to conclude that increased regulation would necessarily improve Detroit’s schools, no one points to unregulated Detroit as a charter success story, says Dr. Cowen, the Michigan State professor.

“I’ve yet to find a serious school choice advocate that would even make that argument.”

Cowen has also studied Michigan’s less controversial Schools of Choice policy, where individual school districts can choose whom to accept from outside their geographic area. Cowen found that it had no impact on students’ performance, though it may well have had a positive impact for many families. 

The policy has also widely been seen as contributing to racial segregation.

What is clear, Cowen says, “is that these programs have destabilized many district budgets. There are clear winners and losers at the district level.”

In Ypsilanti, less money, 'less ... we can do for the kids'

And one of the losers has been Ypsilanti.

While the district has struggled for years with student performance, teacher turnover, and a low budget, it was around 2010 that kids started leaving en masse, Edmondson says. That was when Ypsilanti was identified as a failing district, among Michigan’s worst. “It’s a very dubious distinction,” Edmondson says.

By the fall of 2015, just under 3,700 of the 7,350 public school students who lived in the district were actually enrolled in the school system. With more than $7,000 in funding following each student, Ypsilanti was facing a budget loss of $26 million.

“Less money,” says Paula Gutzman, a longtime administrative employee, “less things we can do for the kids.”

But even critics of school choice recognize good intentions. “Everyone is trying to serve kids,” says Maria Sheler-Edwards, an Ypsilanti school board member. “And every parent is trying to do their best.”

And in the Ypsilanti area, it’s not hard to see why parents choose to enroll their kids elsewhere. Nearby, Ann Arbor public schools rank among the best in the state, and many area charter schools are also high-performing. The Washington Post ranked Arbor Prep, a charter high school five miles south of Ypsilanti’s public high school, as the sixth most-challenging in the state. The school also boasts Michigan’s top girls’ basketball team; Ypsilanti has had to cut most of its nonvarsity athletic programs.  

But the numbers show kids aren’t leaving in equal proportions: While the city of Ypsilanti is about 30 percent African American, its public school district is now about 80 percent African American.

“It’s been white flight,” says Edmondson. “That’s what it is – don’t tell me anything else.”

Ypsilanti is not giving up. Edmondson points to directives geared at academic innovation, like a new internal photo studio and a program in which school leaders visit residents’ homes for honest conversation about issues in the district.

And there’s been evidence of a turnaround: This year, the district lost a net of some 130 students, far fewer than in past years. A few students have even come back from charter schools, and around the district there’s a positive buzz among staff.

But everyone also acknowledges there’s still a long road ahead.

On a bitterly cold recent afternoon, Tahj, a 14-year-old high school freshman, waited outside the building for a ride with his friend Khariell, also 14. Asked about white kids choosing to leave the district, Tahj said a lot didn’t want to enroll in Ypsilanti “because of what they heard” – rumors about school violence and gangs. Those fears were overblown, he said, but he acknowledges that he, too, tried to transfer into another public school (as had Khariell) and would try again next year.

“I’m probably going to stay here,” Tahj said. “I don’t want to graduate from Ypsi, but, I mean, there’s no other schools I could get into.” 

Staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo contributed to this report.