The Broader Philosophical Debate Behind DeVos’ Warning to Charter Advocates

By Arianna Prothero — June 13, 2017 3 min read
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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a warning for the thousands of attendees at the largest annual gathering of charter school advocates and educators in Washington D.C. on Tuesday: Be careful not to become the new education establishment.

Her statement gets at an old tension within the charter school community (albeit one that’s getting a lot more attention lately) between advocates who favor a more freewheeling, free-market approach to offering school choice, and those who prefer a highly curated, data-driven approach to creating and expanding new—generally charter—schools.

“Charters’ success should be celebrated, but it’s equally important not to [quote] ‘become the man.’ ... Many who call themselves reformers have become just another breed of bureaucrats,” DeVos said in her speech at the National Charter Schools Conference on Tuesday in Washington. “We don’t need 500-page charter school applications, that’s not progress. That’s fundamentally at odds with why parents demanded charters in the first place.”

Education Week political reporter Alyson Klein was at the talk and wrote this for the Politics K-12 blog:

That line could be seen as a veiled shot at charter proponents who have criticized the approach to charter accountability that organizations backed by DeVos pushed in Michigan. Supporters of DeVos' work in the Wolverine State tout what they view as a blooming, diverse charter sector that gives parents a wide array of options. But critics say that low-standards and lack of accountability for charter operators have led to the proliferation of low-quality charter schools in Michigan, particularly in Detroit. In fact, Eli Broad, a philanthropist who has funneled millions to charter schools, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association came out against DeVos' nomination to head the U.S. Department of Education in part because they worried that she wouldn't champion strong accountability for charter schools. (More on DeVos' role in creating Michigan's charter sector and a look at how it is doing in this story.)

Pros and Cons of the Two Schools of Thought on Charters

Clearly, Broad falls into the camp of prominent charter boosters who favor the more curated approach to expanding school choice through scaling up proven charter school models. That camp takes a very strategic approach to their giving, pouring their money into research and political advocacy.

But critics say that approach stifles innovation, because as schools that benefit from the largesse try to meet the demands of Broad and other like-minded funders, they end up all looking the same. Picture the prep-school type charter in urban neighborhoods, where students—most of them black or Latino—must abide by strict rules for behavior, wear uniforms, and learn in classrooms adorned with college paraphernalia.

Many of those charter schools are getting results—at least the kinds that can be easily measured. (For more on the evolution of that school of thought, check out my story on the 25th anniversary of the first charter school law.)

Meanwhile, DeVos—also a philanthropic backer—believes in the philosophy sometimes described as “let a thousand flowers bloom.” It’s the idea that states should encourage the growth of many different types of schools and management structures, be it charter schools, for-profit and nonprofit management groups, virtual and brick and mortar campuses, and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. DeVos believes parents are best left to regulate the education market through the choices they make instead of policymakers through burdensome rules.

This approach does lead to some unique school designs. DeVos’ husband founded an aviation-themed charter school in their home state of Michigan. But critics of that approach argue it also leads to a proliferation of poorly performing charter schools that run amok under the lax oversight of incompetent or disengaged authorizers. (Authorizers are the organizations given the authority under state law to approve charter school openings and closings.) They worry such schools, or perhaps more accurately news stories on such schools, undermine the charter sector as a whole.

Finally, there’s been some research over the last couple of years from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University that casts doubt on whether parents have the tools, know-how, and resources to make good school choices—or at least the kinds of choices that will improve academic performance in schools.

For example, parents may not have access to the information they need to properly evaluate schools, or life circumstances may force parents to choose the school that’s closest to them and offers after-school care over another campus that has better academics. And that assumes parents prioritize academics over things like sports.

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