U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used a visit to a Detroit charter school on Friday to push one of her policy mainstays—more school choice.
DeVos visited the Detroit Edison Public School Academy as the final stop on her national “back to school” tour. It was her first visit to a Detroit school as Education Secretary.
DeVos says DEPSA is an example of the benefits school choice can provide. Its students perform better on statewide tests than most comparable schools, and more than 95% graduate within four years.
DeVos’ choice to appear at a charter school was not coincidental. The DeVos family has been instrumental in reshaping Michigan’s school landscape to include more charters and school choice, and she appeared at the event alongside Dan Quisenberry, of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA).
DeVos did say Detroit schools as a whole are showing some “movement in the right direction,” which she attributes to “the fact that there are many more opportunities today for parents being empowered to choose and find the right fit for their students.”
Despite Michigan’s free-wheeling schools-of-choice policy and largely unregulated charter school market—more children in Detroit now attend charter schools than traditional public ones—DeVos said there’s still a lack of educational “freedom” in the state.
“There are many other states that have programs that empower families to make those choices, whether it’s a faith-based school or a virtual school,” DeVos said (the Michigan Constitution prohibits the state from sending public education dollars to private schools). “In some states there are education savings accounts where you can customize your child’s education and choose three or four or five different kinds of education providers.”
DeVos at first appeared confused by a question about how best to help struggling schools. She eventually said the answer is more market-style competition. “Schools that aren’t performing either need to get better, or arguably go out of business,” she said.
DeVos dismissed the idea that the proliferation of charters in Detroit has fostered instability, with many students changing schools frequently and some schools shutting down abruptly. She also rejected the idea that schools should be the focus of education policy, or funding.
“Schools shouldn’t be funded; students should be funded,” she said. “We should be investing and thinking about what is right for individual students, not thinking about buildings.”
Critics say the data does not support DeVos’ contention that more school choice equals better student performance. They point out that since Michigan began taking a more market-based approach to education, the state’s academic performance has fallen.
DeVos’ visit was met by a small group of protesters, who accused her of pushing a “privatization agenda” for public education. They included some members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers like Executive Vice President Lakia Wilson, who dismissed DeVos as “not an educator…she’s a lobbyist.”
“She has to have the best interest of all students in the forefront. And she does not,” Wilson said. “She is pushing her personal agenda, which is to privatize and to charterize America, which totally divests from public education.”