Michigan is often cited as a case study of broad school choice and its troubles. Betsy DeVos thinks students in her home state don’t have enough options.
“The reality is, Michigan doesn’t have wide open choice,” the U.S. education secretary told journalists on Monday at the annual gathering of the Education Writers Association. “Michigan only has the opportunity to offer charter schools, and in my book, that’s one step towards choice, but that’s not education freedom.”
Full freedom, to DeVos, would include voucher programs that allow families to spend taxpayer dollars on tuition to private schools. DeVos, whose advocacy has long influenced education policy in Michigan, wasn’t able to bring the policy there, despite investing $4.75 million in a failed voter referendum in 2000. She now is pushing for a federal tax credit program, called the Education Freedom Scholarship Program, that has been criticized as a “backdoor voucher.”
Over the last 25 years, school choice policies in Michigan have left some school districts in the state virtually unchanged. But the policies transformed the education landscape in Detroit, where about half of students attend charter schools, and tens of thousands leave the city every day to attend schools in the suburbs.
Students in Detroit can easily hop from one school to another — and many do. Frequent school changes come with costs to both students and schools, which often struggle to fill classrooms. And the choices available in Detroit, though numerous, are typically schools with high teacher turnover, low graduation rates, and low test scores.
Detroit’s education landscape has been shaped to a significant degree by DeVos, who, as a major donor to Michigan’s Republican party, successfully argued against regulations on charter schools.
DeVos has not visited a public school in Detroit since being appointed U.S. education secretary (though she has visited students in the city).
Chastity Pratt, an urban affairs reporter for Bridge Magazine, elicited an audible gasp from some in the crowd when she asked DeVos about the education secretary’s advocacy for school choice in her home state.
“No place has been more impacted by that than Detroit, where for 25 years there has been widespread school choice,” Pratt said. “Most kids there take advantage of it. But data show that we have the worst performing charter schools and traditional schools. So my question is, why haven’t you visited a school in Detroit to talk to families about that dichotomy?”
DeVos responded that she visited local schools before being appointed to President Trump’s cabinet, then pivoted to calling for more school choice in Michigan.
A few minutes earlier, DeVos had explained an idea central to her education philosophy: that pitting schools against each other helps them improve.
“Having competition, and having comparisons, forces [schools] to do things that they wouldn’t have done previously,” she said.
It was DeVos’s first time attending the conference of education journalists, which she skipped during her first two years as education secretary.
Her full response to Pratt’s question is below:
“I actually visited a number of schools, before I took this job, in Detroit. I worked in Michigan a long, long time, and will continue to advocate for Michigan and for opportunities for all students. And just to clarify a little bit, because you said has been wide open choice, but the reality is, Michigan doesn’t have wide open choice. Michigan only has the opportunity to offer charter schools, and in my book, that’s one step towards choice, but that’s not education freedom. And I’m hopeful that in the foreseeable future that Michigan and all of the other states that are precluded today because of something called the Blaine Amendment, will ultimately be able to offer that kind of freedom to all students and the multitude of options to all students that states like Florida and Indiana and Ohio and Wisconsin and Georgia and Arizona have been able to offer.”