DeVos: Expanding Disaster for Public Education

There are so many terrifying things happening in our federal government right now that it’s easy to miss a cabinet post confirmation vote that could destroy public education. The president nominated Michigan’s Betsy DeVos, a wealthy advocate for dismantling public schools who has no actual education experience for Secretary of Education.

As someone who attended Michigan public schools and taught in public and charter schools in Michigan, I know the future of education is bleak if the system DeVos built that destroyed Michigan expands nationwide; because, on the surface, charter schools look great but even the best are often no better than the public schools they replace, and the worst leave children stuck with a poor education.

screenshot of WMAA homepage
yes, those are tablets

The West Michigan Aviation Academy (WMAA), DeVos’ charter school in Grand Rapids is a perfect example of an incredible charter school: rigorous classes, two planes, scholarships, and astronauts. It has elements of business (charter school advocates love that): a CEO, and families-as-customers mentality.  The school gets huge donations from the DeVoses, a philanthropic approach unusual in Michigan, where most charter schools are run by for-profit companies.

Despite lots of generous donations, this school isn’t hugely successful by the standard measure of charters: test scores. Let’s break down why.

No Better than Demographically Similar Schools

Articles make it sound like WMAA educates a higher percent of minority students than “the percentage of people who are black or Hispanic in Kent County.”

But, this is disingenuous. Kent County’s school districts are heavily segregated by race and income. Most minority children attend poor city schools, and most white children live in rural areas or wealthier suburbs. As the chart below shows, there are plenty of area high schools with much larger minority populations than WMAA.*

Bar graph showing the non-white population of kent county high schools

There is huge economic disparity within Kent county as shown by the percentage of children who receive free or reduced lunch. Some schools have almost no children in poverty, while other schools are made up almost entirely of children living in poverty. In this context, the WMAA population is wealthier than most.

Race is closely tied to poverty; and in Kent County, people of color predominantly attend schools with high rates of poverty, while the wealthiest schools are also the whitest. Because WMAA doesn’t have a high population of minority students, we can extrapolate that it’s not pulling kids from impoverished schools (or if it is, it’s mostly pulling white kids, which isn’t good either)

Graph comparing schools percentage of minority students to percentage of students living in poverty

Wealth matters because state standardized test scores tend to align with income. So, the more kids a school attracts who are above the poverty line, the higher its likelihood to have acceptable passing rates on the MSTEP (Michigan’s standardized test). As the percentage of children living above the poverty line rises in Kent County schools, so does the percentage of students passing the MSTEP (with a few exceptions).

graph showing test scores improving as income rises.

It matters that WMAA is whiter and wealthier (and more male), because the ostensible point of charter schools is to help kids attending the worst schools move to schools that provide a better education (and by extension, higher test scores). If this is true, then charter schools should match the demographics of the bottom performing schools in the area.

But, WMAA is whiter and richer than the low-performing schools, so it’s either a haven for middle class white kids or it draws from schools that perform higher on the state tests. Either way, it doesn’t demonstrate any academic improvement over local public schools. WMAA students score about the same or lower than those attending public schools with similar demographics despite the fact WMAA is much better funded due to DeVos family donations.**

chart showing MSTEP scores for Northview and Aviation Academy

The “Cheaper” Fallacy

DeVos promises that charter schools provide a better education than public schools for less money. But WMAA shows similar academic achievement to public schools despite benefitting significantly from private money.

The DeVos family donates $315,000 to the school annually and bought the school an airplane (Delta Airlines also donated a plane). Dick and Betsy DeVos “gave more than $7 million through 2014. . . including a $3 million no-interest loan to expand and equip the building.”

In short, a lot of extra money produced test scores no better than public schools with the same demographics. Now, imagine how much harder it is for charter schools to do a better job than public schools if they don’t have big donations, and are managed by companies who skim profits off the top.

This is the norm in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, which has the largest number of for-profit charter schools at 80% of charters in Michigan.” This schools-as-businesses approach results in classrooms without teachers, and “super charter” networks, some of whose students lost skills while attending.

Selecting Against Special Ed

One way to get test scores that make charters look good without the extra expense of improving education is to be unattractive to students from demographics that tend to score lower on standardized tests or that require additional funding to educate.

screengrab of the GRPS sped website
GRPS special Education website

Educating children with special needs is expensive, and charter schools quietly get around the additional cost by not offering servicesEducation Next describes the chilling ways students with disabilities are unwelcome in many charter schools:

“There is considerable evidence that charter schools actively discourage families from enrolling disabled children and counsel them to leave when they do manage to enroll. The largest study on this topic. . . found a pattern of charter schools systematically counseling out students with disabilities rather than making accommodations and providing the required services and supports; administrators at one-fourth of the charter schools in the study reported having advised parents that the school was not a good fit for their disabled children.”

The combination of vouchers and little to no oversight can fail special education students. Take our vice president’s home state:

“Indiana’s public school districts must meet stringent requirements under federal special-education law, but the state’s private schools can be designated as special-education service providers — and receive associated state funding — without employing a single licensed special-education teacher.”

There is no way that complies with IDEA. It’s no wonder that 80% of the special education students in Indiana opt for public schools. But in places where the charters and vouchers DeVos loves have gutted public schools, no options remain for children with special needs. Including kids with disabilities in public schools improves instruction for all students, so this loss hurts all kids.

In this nation, we educate 6.5 million children with disabilities. That’s an awful lot of people left out if charter schools and vouchers go nationwide. DeVos’ testimony before the Senate showed she was unfamiliar with the federal mandate to educate children with disabilities. The fact DeVos hasn’t gained a rudimentary understanding of the IDEA act despite 20 plus years of education advocacy is an indicator that Mrs. DeVos doesn’t care about these kids.

Skipping out on Remediation

Another way to boost scores and look good is to discourage kids who come from struggling schools and have skills below grade level. For this, many charters use limited remedial courses or confusing applications. WMAA, for example has several advanced courses, and few remedial ones.

Detroit’s charter schools are notorious for using the application process to select for test success:

nearly half the adults [in Detroit] are not literate enough to function effectively in everyday life. . .charter schools. . . often have lengthy applications, requiring students to submit test results and official documents or give their history of disciplinary problems or special education. Some schedule enrollment periods in January, even though most parents do not think about where to send their children until May.” (NY Times)

Even if a school accepts entirely through a lottery, parents may assume that questions about discipline mean their child will not be accepted due to a history of behavior problems, and will choose a different school.

Statewide Failures

Detroit has spent the last 20 years as the petri dish for DeVos’ vision of education’s future, and in that dish dish something ugly grows. Sections of Detroit are educational deserts, while others have a glut of school choices. According to the New York Times, a wealthier area has one high school for every 172 students, while poorer parts of Detroit have one high school for every 1247 and one for every 2006 high school students.

Sign outside Detroit Community schoolsEverything about those numbers indicates that charter schools leave behind the very population they purport to help. The Department of Education provides oversight to prevent discrimination in public school, but DeVos wants even less oversight of charters even though this has been a debacle in Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press conducted a yearlong investigation published in 2014 of “lax oversight” of charter schools throughout Michigan and found:

“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. . . 38% of charter schools that received state academic rankings during the 2012-13 school year fell below the 25th percentile. . . Only 23% of traditional public schools fell below the 25th percentile.”

In a list bleaker than a Lemony Snickett novel, the Detroit Free Press highlights failure after failure:

“In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.”

No One Cares about Expertise

DeVos is unqualified for the job and has an agenda that is unrelated to academic quality. Dick and Betsy DeVos see education “as the literal battleground for making a more Christian, God-centered society.” Dick and Betsy DeVos both have spoken of replacing schools with the church as the center of communities (primarily through vouchers, but charter schools are a first step). They have shown a disdain for state constitutions, as when Dick DeVos bemoaned the strength of the Michigan constitution, and cautioned others against discussing reform efforts publicly.

DeVos was selected for her ideology not public education expertise (since she has none). This administration  loves private industry, conservative Christianity and destroying barriers between church and state. For pete’s sake, the first choice for Education Secretary was Jerry Falwell, and Vice President funneled nearly $135 million of public school money to religious schools  in Indiana with no concern for academic rigor or curriculum. And recent executive orders show thinly veiled hostility towards muslims.

A DeVos confirmation will be the next step to bankrupting public schools to line the pockets of businesses and religious institutions while destroying any semblance of academic accountability.

But the difference between executive orders and cabinet nominations is that the people get a say in the latter, and people have been vocal by phone, email, in rallies and on social media about how dangerous Mrs. DeVos is for schools.

There are a myriad of reasons Betsy DeVos should not be Education Secretary. Pick one, and contact your senator now, while there’s still a chance to save public education.


*Comparisons exclude alternative programs, because of mobility and academic differences from mainstream schools. Data for each school can be found at: Central, City, East, East Kentwood, Kenowa Hills, Godwin Heights, Northern, Ottowa Hills, Rogers, WMAA. Some schools are omitted because data was incomplete at (the Michigan site data is less specific)

**City closely matches WMAA demographics but is for accelerated learners, so it’s be unfair to compare WMAA scores to it.

aFeatured image from Pexel.

Update: 1/30/17: charter teacher quote removed due to concerns expressed by the teacher quoted, but here are some other stories that are similar.


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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