President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos for US Secretary of Education in his administration set off a firestorm of commentary on what her impact might be on furthering “school choice” ventures like charter schools and vouchers that send taxpayer money to private enterprises.
In a much-circulated op-ed for the New York Times, economic professor Douglas Harris warns, “The DeVos nomination … should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.” Specifically, Harris points to Detroit – where DeVos has been hugely influential – as a worrisome example of how more choice does not necessarily always lead to more quality in a school system.
In a more expansive piece for the conservative education media site, Education Next, Harris, who generally supports charter schools, points to the “large negative effects” of the voucher programs in Michigan and the failure of charters to significantly improve student test scores in Detroit. He views these results as evidence of how uncontrolled choice risks harming students and perpetuating systemic failure. Even strong advocates for education reform “seem deeply concerned about Detroit,” he maintains.
“In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices,” writes Stephen Henderson, an editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. “What remains in short supply is quality.”
Henderson describes a “deeply dysfunctional educational landscape” in the Motor City, where charter schools operate, sometimes for decades, despite persistently low student-testing outcomes, and schools that are known for being higher quality still remain out of reach for most children. Detroit’s education malpractice, Henderson believes, has been brought about by “an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform … And at center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos.”
So whether you’re viewing the DeVos educational track record from afar, as Harris does, or up close, from the vantage point of a local journalist, the outcomes are concerning to say the least.
Those concerns are especially critical to consider given that DeVos, as journalists for Education Week explain, “would be the first person to head the department in its more than 35-year history who hasn’t either attended public schools or sent her own children to them.” She never taught in a K-12 school, or college, never led or helped operate a school or a university, “never served in a school system or state education agency, or oversaw public education as a governor, or governor’s education aide.”
Remarkably, were she to become Education Secretary, the job will require her to set foot in a public school for what is quite likely the first time in her life. So what expertise, other than her ideology, will she draw from to determine policy?
For years, proponents for what’s become known as “education reform” have argued that policy debates can be boiled down to the singular concern of, to use the grammatically fractured phrase coined by former president George W. Bush, “is our children learning.”
With a myopic focus on standardized test scores, these advocates frequently claim that expertise can derive from empirical analysis of testing data as the primary, sometimes only, basis for policy.
But if you care what happens to your tax dollars, you should be concerned about much more than just test score comparisons among different types of schools.
Some of those other concerns are illuminated in a new report, “Exploring the consequences of charter school expansion in U.S. cities” from the Economic Policy Institute. Written by Rutgers University professor and school finance expert Bruce Baker, the report examines systemic effects of charter schools, particularly their tendency to have adverse financial impacts on taxpayer-funded school districts in big cities.
Part of Baker’s rationale for compiling his study, according to an interview with Rachel Cohen for The American Prospect, grew out of his frustration with the “one-dimensional” argument for or against charters based solely on whether they produce “marginal increases or decreases in students’ standardized test scores.”
Some of those other dimensions include whether charters help ensure all students are served equitably in the system and whether charters promote more efficient use of public resources.
In his analysis of cities and school districts that have experienced the largest migrations of students from public schools to charters, including Detroit, Baker finds charter proliferation often produces a lot of financial inefficiency and inequity.
“Beyond issues of economies of scale,” Baker writes, inefficiencies arise “from the organization and delivery of educational programs to student transportation, increasing the likelihood of budgetary stress on the system as a whole, and the host government in particular.”
As charters expand, Baker finds, districts find themselves burdened with the costs of operating what is essentially two separate systems where there once was just one. Evidence of this growing inefficiency can be found in financial data showing that charter schools tend to spend higher proportions of funding on administration, and a lower percent on instruction, than public schools spend.
Another impact from rapid, unchecked charter expansions is that they can plummet school districts into deeper levels of debt, as the migrating students reduce funding levels for public schools but do nothing to reduce costs from “legacy debts” associated with the districts’ buildings, transportation systems, employee pensions and healthcare, and other fixed costs. This adverse effect of charters has been particularly prevalent in Michigan.
Another disturbing outcome from the expansion of school choice in Michigan and elsewhere, Baker argues, is the tendency of charters to “exacerbate[e] inequities across schools and children because children are being increasingly segregated by economic status, race, language, and disabilities.”
Baker finds, “Charter expansion may increase inequity, introduce inefficiencies and redundancies, compromise financial stability, and introduce other objectionable distortions to the system.”
As the vetting of Betsy DeVos goes forward, and as Trump plunges federal programs head long into expansions of charter schools and vouchers, Baker’s study urges policy makers to look beyond “facile” comparisons of testing data and consider what the impact charters and choice have on “the whole system, not just a subset of the system,” and whether student performance is both adequate and equitable rather than confined to just a chosen few students.
Baker also recommends policy leaders consider the impact of increased school choice on quality of life issues in the community including the effects on transportation and family disruptions.
“If the broad, long-term policy objective is to move toward the provision of a ‘system of great schools,'” Baker concludes, “then those systems must be responsibly, centrally managed to achieve an equitable distribution of excellent (or at the very least adequate) educational opportunities for all children.”
That’s a mighty big “if,” but it’s a principle we should insist the oncoming administration and its Education Secretary adhere to.