Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a former Republican Party Chairwoman in Michigan and Chair of the pro-school-choice group American Federation for Children. Her family has contributed millions of dollars to promote the privatization of public education. One goal has been to create programs and pass laws that require the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition through the use of vouchers.
DeVos, like the person who appointed her, is totally unqualified for the position she holds. As the Detroit Free Press explained: “DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy (teaching) or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools. She is, in essence, a lobbyist — someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them. For 20 years, the lobby her family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools repeatedly failed to deliver on their promise to parents and children.”
In just two months in 2016, the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million to Republican lawmakers who defeated an effort to provide more charter school oversight in Michigan. The Detroit Free Press describes Michigan as the “wild West” of charter schools with virtually no oversight. Just about anyone can open a charter school in Michigan and those schools are allowed to remain open despite poor performance. Michigan leads the nation in the number of schools operated for profit. Seventy-nine percent of the state’s charter schools are located in Detroit and the results have been disastrous.
The Detroit Free Press conducted a year long investigation of charter school records. This is some of the highlights of that report:
“Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools - but state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.”
In reviewing two decades of charter school records, the Free Press found:
Wasteful spending and double-dipping. Board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders. Schools allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records. No state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them.
And a record number of charter schools run by for-profit companies that rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it, saying they’re private and not subject to disclosure laws. Michigan leads the nation in schools run by for-profits…
According to the Free Press’ review, 38 percent of charter schools that received state academic rankings during the 2012-13 school year fell below the 25th percentile, meaning at least 75 percent of all schools in the state performed better. Only 23 percentof traditional public schools fell below the 25th percentile.
The Free Press found that questionable decisions, excessive spending and misuse of taxpayer dollars run the gamut:
• A Sault Ste. Marie charter school board gave its administrator a severance package worth $520,000 in taxpayer money.
• A Bedford Township charter school spent more than $1 million on swampland.
• A mostly online charter school in Charlotte spent $263,000 on a Dale Carnegie confidence-building class, $100,000 more than it spent on laptops and ipads.
National Heritage Academies, the state’s largest for-profit school management company, charges 14 of its Michigan schools $1 million or more in rent - which many real estate experts say is excessive.
A charter school in Pittsfield Township gave jobs and millions of dollars in business to multiple members of the founder’s family.
Charter authorizers have allowed management companies to open multiple schools without a proven track record of success…
Authorizers also have been slow to close poor performers. Hope Academy, founded in Detroit in 1998, ranked almost rock bottom—in the first percentile—in 2012-13. Commonwealth Community Development Academy, founded in Detroit in 1996, ranked in the third percentile…
A Free Press analysis based on 2012-13 data found traditional schools spend an average of $6,985 per student in the classroom, and charter schools spend $4,893. At traditional schools, administration costs an average of $1,090 per student, compared with $1,894 in charter schools.”
A 2013 national report from Stanford University shows that charter schools are generally no better than traditional public schools in student performance: “The fraction of charter schools that outperform their local traditional public schools (TPS) alternatives is 25 percent of charter schools in reading and 29 percent in math.”
By contrast 19 percent of charter schools did worse in reading and 31 percent did worse in math than their TPS alternatives. These numbers reflect an improvement in charter school numbers since 2009. “As a group, the charter schools that were studied in the 2009 study showed modest improvements relative to TPS in the intervening years. The rise was aided by the closure of poorly performing charter schools and by declining performance of TPS comparisons over the same period.”
Online charter schools have proven particularly ineffective in advancing student achievement. The National Study of Online Charter Schools conducted by Stanford and other cooperating research organizations found that most cyber students had much weaker academic growth than their “virtual twins” in traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools. “The pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.”
One Stanford researcher, Lynn Woodworth said that while online charters may be a good fit for some students, the schools “are not serving them very well when it comes to academic growth.” The study found that online charter students have less direct contact with their teachers in one week than traditional students have in one day.
The researchers offer the findings in this report as “a starting point for discussing the future implications of attending online charter schools.” Those implications include:
• Current online charter schools may be a good fit for some students, but the evidence suggests that online charters don’t serve very well the relatively atypical set of students that currently attend these schools, much less the general population. Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule. Online charter schools provide a maximum of flexibility for students with schedules which do not fit the TPS setting. This can be a benefit or a liability as flexibility requires discipline and maturity to maintain high standards. Not all families may be equipped to provide the direction needed for online schooling. Online charter schools should ensure their programs are a good fit for their potential students’ particular needs.
• Current oversight policies in place may not be sufficient for online charter schools. There is evidence that some online charter schools have been able to produce consistent academic benefits for students, but most online charter schools have not.
• States should examine the current progress of existing online programs before allowing expansion. Online schools have the potential to serve large numbers of students with practically no physical restraints on their expansion… Without these natural constraints, online schools have the potential to expand more rapidly than traditional schools. This makes it critical for authorizers to ensure online charter schools demonstrate positive outcomes for students before being allowed to grow and that online charter schools grow at a pace which continues to lead to improved outcomes for their students.
The Van Buren School District has received approval for the Arkansas River Valley Virtual Academy charter school with an eventual capacity of 325 students. Van Buren Superintendent Dr. Harold Jeffcoat said the school would “give students and families the opportunity for choice in their public education.” He added: “Virtual learning is an effective mode of educational delivery that is growing throughout the U.S. As technology continues to evolve, we must be willing to create systems that meet the needs of all students, including those who desire a virtual learning experience.”
The study from Stanford would seem to call into question the effectiveness of online education. In fact, such an educational environment has proven detrimental to the academic progress of most students. It is also detrimental to the traditional public schools which lose $6,646 for each student who leaves the traditional public schools for the online charter school. Why would a public school system choose to invest public funds in a type of charter school that education experts say does not serve most of the targeted students well?