School Choice Opponents Recycle Myths as Trump Picks DeVos for Education

No myth: Most children in charters learn more than peers in district schools

Last week President-elect Donald Trump named Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos as his choice to be the U.S. secretary of education. DeVos believes in an education system that is less centralized and more focused on parental choice.

The announcement drew the ire of school choice opponents in media, teachers unions and academia, who reviled the appointment as “a loss for students” and “the worst that could happen” for America’s public schools.

One example was a blog written for the Times Education Supplement by Paul Reville, a professor of education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He characterized Michigan charter schools as corrupt and harmful.

“Michigan’s school choice options are confined to charter schools, but the performance of these schools has been poor while the oversight weak to nonexistent, leading to pervasive abuses particularly in beleaguered places like Detroit,” Reville wrote the day after Trump selected DeVos.

“Eight out of 10 charter schools in MI perform below the state average; 70 percent of Detroit’s charter schools rank in the bottom quarter of MI public schools,” Reville continued.

For the Record says: Reville did not provide citations, but the sources he relied on clearly failed to incorporate the socio-economic status of most Michigan charter school students in their analyses. When apples-to-apples comparisons are made between students of comparable backgrounds who attend charter schools versus conventional Michigan school district schools, those attending charter schools tend to learn more and advance further.

A study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) did take student backgrounds into account. It found that schoolchildren from low-income Detroit households in charter schools tend to make more progress in reading and math than their peers in the city’s conventional public schools.

CREDO reported in 2015 that children in Detroit charters gained the equivalent of a few weeks to several months of additional learning compared to their peers in non-charter Detroit public schools. The Stanford researchers also said in that 2015 report that Detroit’s charter schools could “serve as models to other communities.”

Meawhile traditional Detroit public schools were found to be the worst in the country among urban districts, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – the nation’s report card. Detroit's non-charter public schools have been the nation’s worst-performing urban school district for student learning in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 – that's every year the bi-annual report card was done.

A school performance database maintained by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy also controls for student socio-economic backgrounds and found that charter elementary and middle schools are overrepresented in the list of Michigan’s best public schools. Charters make up 11 percent of all elementary and middle schools but 15 percent of the top 100 schools in the state. Three of the state’s top 10 public elementary and middle schools are charters.

Michigan’s charter high schools stand out even more: Seven of the state’s 20 best-performing high schools are charters, including two in Detroit. That’s 35 percent of the top-20 list even though just 11 percent of the state’s public high schools are charters.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.