School Choice & Charters

Big Achievement Gaps in Charter School Founded by Betsy DeVos’ Husband

By Arianna Prothero — November 29, 2016 2 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, has never worked in a school or in government, but she has had a front row seat to the launch and operation of a charter school. Her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., founded the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school, in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2010.

According to his bio on the West Michigan Aviation Academy’s website, DeVos Jr. was inspired to start an aviation-themed charter school out of his “love of flying and shared passion with his wife, Betsy, for innovative educational options in Grand Rapids.”

Expanding school choice has been a philanthropic-focus shared by many members of the wealthy DeVos family, which made its fortune from Amway Corp., the direct sales behemoth.

So, who attends the DeVos-founded charter school and how is it doing?

West Michigan Aviation Academy enrolls just under 550 students, 38 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data.

Fifteen percent of students at the school are African American, 16 percent are Latino, and 61 percent are white, which is a fairly diverse student body for a charter school.

The school was ranked in the 32nd percentile, meaning that it outperformed 32 percent of other public schools in the state in the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which data was available from the Michigan Department of Education.

The West Michigan Aviation Academy was also designated as a “focus school” in that same year because of the gaps in reading and math performance between its highest and lowest-performing students.

The school’s four-year graduation rate was higher than the state average—86 percent versus 79 percent for the 2014-15 school year.

And if you put any stock in the annual high school rankings put out by U.S. News, you can see how West Michigan Aviation Academy stacked up in the magazine’s most recent roundup.

The nine-member board which oversees West Michigan Aviation Academy includes DeVos Jr. as well as two people who have worked for Amway, the company founded by Betsy DeVos’ father-in-law, Richard DeVos Sr.

One of the primary differences between charter schools and traditional public schools is that they are overseen by appointed nonprofit boards—like a charity would have—versus publicly elected boards like most school districts have.

So, how has her husband’s experience with launching a charter school influenced Betsy DeVos’ opinions on school choice policies? Here’s one interesting snippet from a Q&A she did with Philanthropy Roundtable, a membership organization for philanthropists:

“There are probably some funders who believe that charter schools are the be-all and end-all answer. To them, I would simply point out that charter schools take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today. Charter schools, on the other hand, take time and resources. Believe me. My husband started a charter high school.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.