During her Senate hearing, now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeatedly stated that she supports school accountability. But what does accountability actually mean to her? For clues, I looked into the model school choice legislation proposed by the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization DeVos formerly chaired. If that bill reflects DeVos’ priorities, it suggests she supports accountability measures that are significantly weaker than the ones currently applied to public schools in all 50 states.
There are at least four key accountability problems with the AFC’s voucher program:
Should public charter schools be allowed to opt out of state-run teacher pension plans?
There are strong arguments in favor of letting charter schools opt out. Most charter school teachers would be better off in more portable retirement plans. And charter schools tend to be new, so it might be unfair to ask them to pay off the debts of the old system.
Still, if charters are allowed to opt out, that puts added pressure on traditional school district budgets as they’re forced to take on proportionately larger shares of state pension legacy costs. As the charter sector has grown over time, and as pension debts eat up a larger and larger share of school spending, the charter school pension question has been bubbling up. It’s even played a small role in the debate over the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Education.
As my colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, and Sara Mead noted earlier this week in their slide deck analyzing the education landscape in Michigan, DeVos’ home state of Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with more than 40 charter school authorizers and 10 percent of its students attending charter schools. Michigan’s charter school sector is also unique in that 71 percent of its charters are run by an Education Management Organization (EMO), which is a for-profit operator of public schools.
Although DeVos has been personally maligned for Michigan’s large for-profit charter sector, one thing that’s been missing from the debate is that Michigan’s EMOs are exempt from the state teacher pension fund. That means Michigan’s EMOs get to avoid paying a share of the state’s pension legacy costs, and in the process, they’re playing a small part in exacerbating the pension debt problem for all other Michigan public schools.
How big of a problem is this? In order to separate fact from fiction, here are six things to know about charter schools and teacher pensions nationwide, with Michigan as an example: Continue reading →
In the weeks following Betsy DeVos’ nomination for Secretary of Education, Michigan’s charter schools have become a topic of heated debate. Our recent report seeks to shed light on this debate, but it also highlights that charter schools aren’t the only form of public school choice in Michigan. The state is home to a robust set of inter-district choice policies which allow students to attend schools outside their home school district. In fact, more Michigan students attend schools of choice through inter-district choice policies than attend charter schools. A total of six percent of Detroit children attend schools in other districts.
Michigan isn’t the only state with inter-district choice options. The Education Commission of the States identifies numerous states with formal inter-district choice policies on the books, although the purposes, features, and extent to which they are used vary. Yet these policies draw far less attention — and controversy — than charter schools, perhaps in part because students who exercise these options are still served by district-run public schools.
There’s also much less research on the impact of inter-district choice than there is on charter schools or private school choice programs. Researchers at Michigan State University have used state data to track patterns in the flow of students through inter-district choice programs in Michigan, and have found that historically underserved students are more likely to take advantage of inter-district choice options — but also more likely to opt out of them. Less is known about the impact of participation in these programs on students’ achievement, how inter-district choice programs affect the behaviors and performance of both sending and receiving districts, or the implications for future policy design.
Inter-district choice could offer one way to expand options for some students in rural areas where other forms of choice are less accessible. Some progressive education analysts who oppose charters do support inter-district choice models that seek to increase diversity or enable racial/ethnic minority students from predominantly minority districts to attend more diverse schools outside their home district. But voucher and private school choice supporters have often shown little interest in these programs: the choice advocacy group Ed Choice, for example, lists inter-district and intra-district choice as a form of school choice on its website, but its reports tracking the presence of choice options in states focuses only on private school choice options.
Given the prominence of inter-district choice in Michigan — not to mention DeVos’ standardline that a student’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine her educational options — it’s worth asking whether incentives for inter-district choice are likely to or should play a role in a future Trump administration school choice agenda. At a minimum, existing inter-district choice programs deserve more attention, analysis, and research.
To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.
When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.
To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.
Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?
Among the things we found:
Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.
Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.
During herconfirmation hearinglast night, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, fielded questions from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee. As we predicted, several committee members asked DeVos about her involvement in education policy and politics in her home state of Michigan and in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). In particular, Senator Bennet (D-CO) and Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) used Michigan and DPS data to press DeVos on accountability, charter school oversight, and school improvement.
In many cases, however, the questions and answers both misrepresented or oversimplified the data. To be fair, the time constraints and pressure of a confirmation hearing make it difficult to fully dig into the nuance of an entire state’s complex education history. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners accurately evaluate DeVos, we are releasing a fact-base about the education policy landscape in Michigan after the Inauguration. But until then, here are explanations for a few Michigan data points mentioned in last night’s hearing (note: all speakers’ talking points have been paraphrased for clarity):Continue reading →