DeVos knows why school choice matters. She knows about Detroit.
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National School Choice Week is in its seventh year and bigger than ever. But school choice itself is under intense scrutiny, with one of its leading advocates accused of contributing to chaos in a major American city.

President Donald Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate, to be the next education secretary, an act which could signal new federal initiatives to advance school choice. Half the states have already enacted programs that help students attend private schools, in large measure because DeVos and others have pushed them to do so.

DeVos is the former head of the Republican Party in Michigan, and influential education reform advocate in the state, where the largest district, Detroit, has yielded the worst test scores in the nation among urban districts.

Detroit trails only New Orleans in the percentage of public school students attending charters.

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The district’s interim superintendent recently told a major newspaper that academic improvement might not come for another eight to 10 years. Imagine being the Detroit parent of a first-grader and hearing that dispiriting news. Not surprising then, half the Detroit voters in a July 2016 survey say students need more options. Majorities in Detroit and Michigan also see charters as one way for students to get into good schools, a finding consistent with national polling.

Yet rather than seek ways to give families more options, some people wanting to fix the city’s education woes have staked out a position on rolling back choice. 

During last year’s legislative debate about the future of the financially crippled Detroit Public Schools, the mayor and his allies touted a Detroit Education Commission as the key to improvements. They called for a politically appointed commission to protect the district and restrict the growth of charter schools. The state legislature approved $665 million to pay off the district’s debts, but rejected the commission idea.

Opponents of Trump’s nominee point to the commission’s defeat as evidence that she has helped turn the city’s educational landscape into the “Wild West.” But that deceptive narrative ignores the rigorous process for new charters required by authorizers. It overlooks the many regulations all charters must comply with, like their district counterparts. It overlooks the discipline of the very real threat of closure charters face for consistent failure — unlike district schools.

Similarly, some have tried to twist the best available research to claim that Detroit’s many charter schools are no better, or even worse, than the city’s school district. Research by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that half the charter schools perform the same as district schools, while most of the rest provide better results. On average, attending a charter means three extra months of learning per year. According to CREDO, Detroit was one of four urban charter communities that were “essential examples of school-level and system-level commitments to quality.”

While access to charters has benefited many students, the desire for better options cannot be ignored. In the 2016 survey, the most popular policy among Detroiters was to encourage tuition scholarships for students to attend private schools by giving tax credits to scholarship donors.

This policy exists in 17 states. The largest program of its kind, in Florida, serves nearly 100,000 disadvantaged students and recently triumphed in a multi-year legal challenge.

A Mackinac Center for Public Policy survey of Michigan private schools estimates there are 21,000 empty seats at private schools statewide, even after private — and especially Catholic — options have declined in Detroit. Extra financial assistance could put hundreds of those seats within the reach of at-risk Detroit kids.

In Detroit, hundreds of students, parents and educators are slated to gather Friday during National School Choice Week to celebrate their options. By their actions, parents show that the city’s charter schools offer safer, better learning alternatives for many.

There are still many ways to help even more students in the short term. Better access to choice schools must include creative solutions to help impoverished families with their transportation needs. Jumpstarting scholarship aid to fill private school seats would expand opportunities for low-income families, but may require removing an onerous amendment to Michigan’s constitution — or an act of Congress.

The path forward won’t be smooth or easy, but the hope it gives parents, not to mention the brighter future it gives children, will make it worthwhile. It begins with honoring parents’ ability to choose the schools that best meet their children’s needs.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based research institution. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow


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