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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reopens the charter school debate

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By Emilie Plesset

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was unable to say whether school choice in her home state of Michigan has improved public schools during a CBS “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night.

“I don’t know,” DeVos told journalist Lesley Stahl. “Overall, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better... I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”

Before joining the Trump administration, DeVos spent decades advocating for school choice in Michigan and the expansion of charter schools. Her view, as she explained during the interview, is that when students have the choice to attend different schools, the competition will force traditional public schools to improve.

There are 6,900 charter schools nationwide and about 3.1 million students enrolled in charters schools in 43 states, NPR reported last year. Charter schools, which first started opening in the United States in 1992, receive public funds but are privately run. While traditional public schools only take students who live in their district, charter schools don’t have such geographical limits and have to accept as many students as they can accommodate. Like traditional public schools, charters can’t pick the students they want, charge tuition, or teach religion.

With school choice, students also have the option to attend a private school. With a voucher program, private schools receive some of the public funds that would have been used to educate individual students had they attended a public school.

Every state has its own laws to regulate funding and oversee performance standards at charter schools. Michigan is unique in its decentralized approach to school choice and its large percentage of for-profit charter schools, which, according to a study published last summer by the Center for Research and Education outcomes at Stanford University, perform worse on average than their non-profit counterparts. The Detroit Free Press reported in June 2017 that while for-profit companies run only 16 percent of charter schools across the country, they run about 80 percent of charters in Michigan. Many other states have laws prohibiting for-profit companies from running charter schools.

While Michigan has one of the largest networks of charter schools in the country, public education in the state has continued to struggle. A study published last year by the University of Michigan found that students in the state have consistently had the least improved test scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) since 2003. A 2016 Education Trust-Midwest report also found that Michigan ranked among the bottom 10 states in several subjects and is continuing to fall behind.

While proponents of school choice, like DeVos, argue that it allows parents and students more educational options, critics argue that school choice takes funding away from already struggling schools.

Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, told Michigan Radio in January that the state’s current school choice model is hurting schools in Detroit and accelerating racial and socio-economic segregation.

“What we’re seeing in our urban schools is slowly the [number of students] are going down. When there’s competition, it’s really hard on those schools who end up having empty seats and half empty schools,” he said. “Suburban Detroit schools are doing better because they can still fill their places through the schools of choice program, pulling students out of the urban areas, but our urban schools are suffering. First, they’re losing students. Second, they have fewer teachers left.”

In the interview, DeVos said she has “not intentionally” avoided visiting Michigan’s underperforming schools, but said that “maybe [she] should.”