Classroom Technology

Betsy DeVos Helped Create Michigan’s Charter Sector. Here’s How It’s Doing

By Arianna Prothero — December 07, 2016 6 min read
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Before Betsy DeVos was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to be the U.S. Secretary of Education, she played a significant role in shaping Michigan’s charter school sector as a long-time advocate and philanthropic-backer of school choice in the state.

With the support of the DeVos family, Michigan was quick to jump on the charter school bandwagon in 1993—just two years after the nation’s first charter law was enacted in Minnesota.

In many ways, Michigan embodies a popular philosophy of the early days of the charter movement often described by advocates as “let a thousand flowers bloom.” It’s the idea that states should encourage the growth of lots of schools—as well as different kinds of schools and management structures—and let parents, through the choices they make, regulate the market and weed out the bad options.

This attitude is echoed in the DeVos philosophy toward school choice.

“We are proponents of all forms of choice,” says Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, an advocacy and political action committee tasked with carrying out the DeVos’ education reform goals.

“We don’t make a distinction between cyber versus brick and mortar, we don’t make a distinction between management companies that are for-profit or nonprofit ... What matters to us is, are the kids learning?”

Who Runs Charter Schools in Michigan?

Michigan allows both for-profit and non-profit groups to run charter schools. A significant majority of Michigan’s charter schools are run by local for-profit operators, and it has more schools run by for-profit operators than any other state, according to a 2013 report by the National Education Policy Center.

Many of the high-profile, multi-state charter school networks such as KIPP or Uncommon Schools, don’t operate charters in Michigan.

Michigan also has a wide variety of authorizers—the groups that are given the power under state law to decide which charter schools can open, and which are shut down for poor performance or mismanagement. Both school districts and higher education institutions, such as universities and community colleges, are allowed to authorize charters—most schools in the state are authorized by higher education institutions. There are a total of 45 different authorizers in the state, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Critics of Michigan’s charter school law say having lots of different authorizers becomes chaotic and leads to poor quality charter schools. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education cited Michigan’s lack of oversight of its authorizers when it denied the state a $45 million grant request through the federal Charter Schools Program.

In addition to brick and mortar charter schools, Michigan is one of 23 states that also has full-time online charter schools. The full-time online charter school sector, a niche sector that serves more than 200,000 students nationwide, has been plagued by serious academic and management problems, an issue that Education Week recently spent several months investigating.

How Many Charters Are There?

There are around 300 charter schools enrolling nearly 150,000 students in Michigan. However, the state’s charter sector is no longer really expanding. It had a net loss of two charter schools in the 2015-16 school year, and only about 3 percent enrollment growth, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But the state has the unusual distinction of being home to two of only three cities in the country that have more than half of their public school students enrolled in charter schools: Detroit and Flint. Currently, 53 percent of students in those cities attend charters.

Only New Orleans, whose traditional school district was eviscerated and radically overhauled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has a higher enrollment share at 92 percent, according to numbers from the National Alliance.

Who Attends Michigan’s Charter Schools?

In terms of demographics, Michigan’s charter schools serve disproportionately more black students compared to all the other non-charters in the state, but about the same proportion of Latino students, according to federal data analyzed by the Education Week Research Center.

Black students make up 54 percent of Michigan’s charter school enrollment, versus 15 percent of non-charter schools. Latino students represent 7 and 6 percent of charter and non-charter enrollment, respectively.

How Is Michigan’s Charter School Sector Performing?

A 2013 national study of charter school performance from Stanford University’s Center for Educational Outcomes found that Michigan charter school students gained an average of 43 days in reading and math compared to their district school counterparts.

A 2015 study by CREDO that looked only at charter schools in urban areas found similar results in Detroit’s charter schools.

But, as even charter school supporters in Michigan acknowledge, those results are skewed somewhat by the fact that the state’s traditional district schools are struggling mightily.

“The 2015 study found that Detroit is one of the exemplary cities—but that’s in part because the performance in Detroit public schools is so low,” says Ben DeGrow, the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank that receives funding from the DeVos’ foundation.

A 2014 investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that public school students perform slightly better on standardized test than charters statewide, even when student poverty is taken into account, and that the state had among the weakest charter regulations in the nation.

The investigation cited multiple instances of insider dealing, nepotism, and questionable financial management in the state’s charters. For instance, one Michigan school gave an administrator a severance package worth more than half a million dollars—funded by taxpayer money.

State Rankings

National charter advocacy groups that rank states give Michigan mostly fair to high marks. An annual report from the National Alliance ranks the quality of the state’s charter law 21st out of 42 states and the District of Columbia.

But Michigan rated much higher—3rd place—among 18 states that the National Alliance ranks based on how “healthy” their charter sectors are—rankings determined by factors such as the number of charter schools in the state, funding levels, and student academic growth.

In a report released just this week, the National Association for Charter School Authorizers also ranked Michigan 21st out of 42 states and the District of Columbia for its policies directing authorizers. The rubric looks at whether a state has standards for authorizers and whether it sanctions poor-performing authorizers, among other things.

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Photo: Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, sits in the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Dec. 1. —Susan Walsh/AP

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