Betsy DeVos's real record in Michigan

Daniel L. Quisenberry

The announcement that Betsy DeVos would be the President-elect’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education has touched off more speculation than the College Football Playoffs. But at least in football, expert opinions are usually grounded in facts. For the incoming secretary, opinion and commentary have mostly taken place in a reality that is, as Einstein once said, “merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”  

Indicative of this trend is the falsehood that Michigan charters have no regulation, no oversight, and no accountability. Critics who employ this fiction often roll it into the fallacy that, because Betsy is influential in the state, those mistaken characteristics will soon be national objectives. This defective perception of Michigan tells you nothing of the potential DeVos agenda. To do so is to use the logic of Monty Python: If wood floats and a duck floats, a duck must be made of wood.

In truth, DeVos and the organizations she has supported have played a positive role in shaping Michigan’s charter sector—which is quite strong. Indeed, it took the bronze in a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools that looked at real outcomes of charter quality, growth, and innovation across eighteen states. And just this week it took a “most improved” prize in a report card from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Most importantly, Michigan’s charter schools have achieved strong student academic results, as demonstrated in CREDO’s National Charter School Study 2013. As CREDO’s director, Dr. Margaret Raymond, put it:

These findings show that Michigan has set policies and practices for charter schools and their authorizers to produce consistent high quality across the state. The findings are especially welcome for students in communities that face significant education challenges.

Nevertheless, the sector has strived to improve further—and to that end, it supported efforts in this spring’s legislative session to strengthen accountability and oversight. This resulted in a law being passed that includes a new statewide A–F performance accountability system based on student proficiency and growth. It also established charter authorizer accreditation requirements, limiting who can authorize a charter school in Detroit. It put a ban on authorizer-shopping for failing charter schools, and an automatic closure provision that applies only to charters. And a city-level council will assure the production of deep demographic information on the educational needs of Detroit and work with authorizers to better coordinate charter school openings and closings.

The only major provision that lawmakers struck from the legislation was a new Detroit Education Commission that would have had the power to veto the creation of new charter schools in Detroit. Charter supporters were understandably nervous that, in the wrong hands, such a commission could put an end to charter growth in the city, denying opportunities for kids who desperately need them. And because the Commission’s members were to be appointed by Detroit’s mayor, and because the teachers unions have outsize influence in local elections, such an outcome was all too likely. Betsy DeVos, as well as state legislators, saw the threat and opposed the Commission accordingly. That’s no sign of opposition to accountability—it’s the mark of a wise, farsighted political pragmatist that keeps parents and school level educators empowered.

Therefore, if we assume that the policy solutions applied in Detroit and to Michigan charters have any bearing on DeVos’s future plans for the nation, her priorities would comprise support for performance-based accountability, authorizer accountability, automatic-closure for low performing charters, charter autonomy, and data driven coordination of charter openings and closings.

And that’s just in recent years. Over her three decades in education, Betsy DeVos has worked to build bi-partisan support for Michigan’s education policies, including school choice, charters, inter-district public school choice, public online programs, K–3 reading expectations, higher standards, and more.

But even more importantly than all this policy, DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and student success before politics. If her experience in Michigan is the measure, I would expect the same from her as Secretary of Education.

Daniel Quisenberry is the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.