On February 7, Betsy Devos was confirmed as the nation’s new education secretary after a contentious 50-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie. Coming to the job with no experience in public education—either as a student, parent, educator, or board member—DeVos’s only stated commitment is to expand “choice” nationally through charter schools and private-school vouchers, as she worked to do in her home state of Michigan.
There, DeVos was a key player in expanding a free-market system that features the largest number and percentage of for-profit charter schools in the nation: 79 percent of Michigan’s charters are for-profit. This is highly unusual, as more than 80 percent of charters nationwide are nonprofit. DeVos has also owned shares in K12 Inc., the nation’s largest operator of for-profit charter schools. In 2000, she helped fund an unsuccessful effort to change the state constitution in order to permit private-school vouchers.
In a recent interview about her goals as education secretary, DeVos stated that she intends to expand on this vision of choice, saying: “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”
“Choice” has become a popular mantra in education-reform circles, used primarily to describe initiatives to increase the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, and to increase funding for private schools through voucher systems. The presumption in both of these instances is that they will expand high-quality options for parents and students.
Yet even among ardent charter-school supporters, DeVos’s approach to choice is controversial. In an unexpected twist, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association opposed her nomination because of concerns about the low quality of many charters under Michigan’s lax accountability rules. In addition, one of the nation’s leading proponents and funders of charter schools, billionaire Eli Broad, sent a strongly worded letter to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer stressing his opposition to DeVos. “At the risk of stating the obvious,” Broad wrote, “we must have a secretary of education who believes in public education and the need to keep public schools public.”
Clearly, the issues surrounding school choice are more complex than the typical pro-charter/anti-charter battle lines might suggest. The central question for a public-education system in a democratic society is not whether school options should exist, but whether high-quality schools are available to all children. The fact that choice doesn’t guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through 500 cable-TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome.
The key question, therefore, is whether we can create a system in which all schools are worth choosing and all children are chosen by good schools. How might DeVos’s agenda affect these goals?
The State of Educational Choice
Despite the association of choice with privately operated charter schools and voucher programs, the vast majority of schools of choice are operated by public-school districts. Since the 1960s, districts have sponsored alternatives like magnet schools, themed schools (e.g., schools dedicated to the arts, law, or health professions), language-immersion schools, and networks of innovative school models, such as the Internationals Network for Public Schools, the New Tech Network, and California’s Linked Learning Academies. Many cities—including New York, San Francisco, and Cambridge, Massachusetts—have pioneered choice systems in which parents are able to choose among the different public schools in their neighborhoods.
The first modern voucher program, in which public funds are provided to students to offset tuition at private schools, was pioneered in Milwaukee in 1990. Since then, vouchers have been hotly contested in the courts and at the ballot box. Although there are now 25 voucher programs operating across 14 states and Washington, DC, the estimated 178,070 recipients represent far less than 1 percent of all school-age students. Most vouchers are for small amounts and do not cover a full tuition, so most recipients are students who were already attending private school.
The idea of “chartering” schools was initially proposed in 1988 by teachers’ union leader Albert Shanker and embraced by progressive educators, who saw such schools as places where teachers could innovate. Minnesota passed the first charter law in 1991; by 2013, 42 states had enacted similar legislation. Federal incentives began during the George W. Bush administration, were increased in the Obama years, and were augmented by substantial investments from philanthropies like the Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. There are now about 6,500 public charter schools serving 2.5 million students—or about 5 percent of the K–12 population.
Although their overall numbers are small, there are also some communities where initiatives to close district-run schools have left many or most students in charter schools. The most extreme case is New Orleans, where, as of this coming school year, all students will need to enroll in a charter or private school, as the last district-run schools will have been closed or transformed into charters. Ironically, given Shanker’s early vision, a major goal for many charter supporters has been to dismantle teachers’ unions. Louisiana fired all of New Orleans’s 7,000 public-school teachers after Hurricane Katrina and replaced them with nonunionized charter-school teachers. By the time the courts declared the move illegal, it was too late to restore the teaching force.
Over time, the charter movement has grown from individual schools created by groups with innovative education ideas to chains operated by charter-management organizations, some of them for-profit companies. The number of for-profit education-management companies running charter schools increased from five to 99 between 1995 and 2012, and the number of schools they operate from six to 758.
These education companies exert substantial influence on US policy-making. As Education Week reported in 2013, K12 Inc., the publicly traded online-charter company in which DeVos had been an investor, deployed 39 lobbyists in 2012 “to work for state and local policies that would help expand the use of virtual learning.” And between 2004 and 2012, the for-profit charter operator White Hat Management and its employees poured more than $2 million into the campaigns of Ohio politicians. At the time, Education Week reported, White Hat was “under fire for poor performance.”
The Consequences of “Choice”
After 25 years of charter-school efforts, there are clearly some innovative charter schools that promote high-quality education. Some offer unique philosophies of teaching, including the Montessori and Waldorf methods, and some offer new school models, like High Tech High in San Diego, which is project-based and technology-oriented. Other charters look little different from traditional neighborhood public schools in their curricula and offerings.
Some successful charters serve high-need students without “creaming and cropping”—a now-common practice by which schools admit only the most promising students and push out those who struggle to learn. For many schools, however, selectivity has become one of the major ways they sustain positive outcomes. In a system of accountability in which schools are evaluated by test scores and threatened with closure if they don’t continually improve them, the easiest way to appear successful is to keep out, or push out, low-performing students.
Both charters and district-run schools have engaged in these practices, but it’s easier for charters that manage their own admissions and expulsion policies to do so. In some states, like Louisiana, charters are allowed to set admissions policies just like private schools. In others, like California, this practice is illegal, but a recent study found that one in five California charters violate state law by restricting access for high-need students. Most studies have found that charters underserve English learners and special-education students relative to the public schools in their districts. They are also more racially and economically segregated than public schools generally.
While the promise of choice sounds tantalizing, the reality has proved to be much more complex. It turns out that in many systems of choice, a relatively small number of good schools are available to a small number of children—usually the most advantaged. In New Orleans, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center had to sue to ensure that charter schools would accept special-education students, which most refused to do. Even after the lawsuit was resolved, researchers at Stanford University found that special-education students and other vulnerable young people have little actual choice, as they are often assigned, against their will, to failing schools. The successful charters in New Orleans disproportionately serve white and financially secure students in a highly stratified system that confines most poor black students to schools rated “D” or “F” by the state.
A similar dynamic has played out in more than 20 other cities in recent years, as state and local governments have taken advantage of a combination of fiscal crises and federal incentives under the No Child Left Behind Act to close district-run schools and replace them with privately run charters. In Detroit, for instance, the last state-appointed emergency manager aimed to replace the entire school district with charters. And in Pennsylvania, then-Governor Tom Corbett cut Philadelphia’s budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, throwing it into fiscal distress. Hundreds of educators were fired and a manager installed who carved up the school district and turned over large sections to private operators.
A new organization called Journey for Justice, comprising civil-rights and grassroots groups in 24 cities, has set out to halt this trend, demanding “community-driven alternatives to the privatization of and dismantling of public schools systems.” The coalition notes that in every one of its districts, school closings disproportionately affect African-American and Latino students and communities. As a consequence, many have filed complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act demanding that the Department of Education investigate the racial impact of public-school closings in these cities.
The Price of “Choice”
Despite the rush to trade district-run public schools for privately managed options, the research has found mixed results for both voucher programs and charter schools, with some charters doing better and others doing worse than public schools. For example, a large-scale study of student data from 16 states by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charters produced academic gains that were better than those at traditional public schools, while 37 percent performed worse than their public-school counterparts. Most showed no difference.
Outcomes vary across states, which have very different laws. In California, where charters have been regulated relatively carefully to ensure fair access, a thoughtful curriculum, and qualified staff, they generally perform comparably with other public schools, although those focused on home schooling or distance learning do worse. Students in charter high schools did worse in mathematics and better in English-language arts. However, in Ohio and Arizona, where unregulated market strategies have created a huge range of for-profit and nonprofit providers with few public safeguards, most charter schools have low ratings, and charter-school students perform at consistently lower levels than their demographically similar public-school counterparts.
Scandals abound, especially with online charters, which have consistently negative outcomes yet reap the highest profits, since operators don’t have to buy buildings and often hire few teachers at low salaries. For example, over the course of nearly a decade, The Columbus Dispatch reported on the cyber-school ECOT in Ohio, which in one month received $932,030 in taxpayer money for 2,270 students, but could provide evidence that only seven had logged on.
In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, critics say that unaccountable charter-school policies have produced a large number of failing schools in the poorest communities. Although one study by Stanford’s Hoover Institution found better outcomes for Michigan charter students than similar students coming from their “feeder schools,” the study did not compare charter outcomes to those of the two-thirds of Michigan’s schools that students didn’t leave—likely the stronger schools in the state.
Some Michigan officials argue that the effects of the choice plan and simultaneous cuts in public-school budgets have been negative statewide. John Austin, the president of the State Board of Education, noted that the expansion of choice is “destroying learning outcomes.” And indeed, the state’s overall performance has sunk like a stone in the last decade. Until the early 2000s, Michigan reliably ranked above the national average and often in the top tier of states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, especially in math. However, by 2015, it lagged behind most other states. Only seven states scored lower than Michigan in measurements of fourth-grade reading, and no state scored lower for black students in reading or math. While eighth graders did a bit better, they also scored below the national average, and African-American students underperformed their peers in nearly all other states in reading and math. Detroit’s students scored below those in every other major US city.
An International Perspective
These outcomes are similar to those my colleagues and I found in our investigation of several countries that had adopted privatization initiatives without safeguards. In our 2016 book Global Education Reform, we tracked what happened in Chile, beginning under the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980, and later in Sweden, starting in 1992, when these countries adopted widespread voucher and charter-like policies, including pouring public funding into private for-profit schools while disinvesting from their public-school systems. Both are now trying to reverse course after their systems became more segregated and unequal, and dropped dramatically in achievement in comparison to their international counterparts.
Sweden, once the educational jewel of high-achieving Scandinavia, now performs well below most European and Asian countries on the Program for International Student Assessment. It stands in sharp contrast to Finland, once the least-educated Scandinavian country, which made substantial investments in a high-quality public system beginning in the 1970s and now consistently performs near the top of the international rankings.
Meanwhile, Chile performs even lower than Sweden, closer to the ranks of the developing nations, and it has only one-third as many high-performing students as Cuba, which leads the rankings in Central and South America. Like Finland, Cuba invested in its public schools with a highly prepared teaching force, an inquiry-oriented curriculum, and strong relationships with families.
It may be that, in countries like Sweden and Chile, a tipping point occurs when the number of private schools proliferates and for-profit providers sacrifice quality for greater profits, producing negative results. The same thing may be happening in some states in this country as they approach a tipping point in privatized choice. For example, three studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana found large negative effects on student achievement compared to similar students in public schools.
Clearly, there are some excellent private and charter schools. But there are also some that fail badly and exploit the most vulnerable students. A public-education system cannot leave choice to chance: It must ensure equitable access to high-quality schools for all children.
Can Choice and Democracy Coexist?
Are there ways the United States can get the benefits of choice without the downsides that have accompanied initiatives like Michigan’s? At the heart of the challenge is creating a system of schools worth choosing, and in which all children are chosen by a good school.
The poor outcomes found in some states and nations stand in contrast with those of Massachusetts, our highest-performing state. Massachusetts has many district-run schools of choice, along with a small number of high-performing charter schools—just 81—that operate under a cap on the total number of charters. These schools are held to rigorous expectations not only for curriculum, staffing quality, and academic performance, but also for the admission and retention of high-needs students.
Massachusetts demonstrates some of the principles that might support a democratic system that incorporates productive choice. Rather than creating a competitive marketplace of successes and failures, such a system would increase educational quality and equity by encouraging innovation and allowing diversity among schools, including public schools run by districts. It would maintain a commitment to equity and access through regularly monitored open-admissions policies and would prohibit selective admissions or the pushing out of students. School funding would be based on student needs and pose no burdens to families in terms of tuition, fees, or transportation. Allowing for-profit entities to operate schools would be recognized as creating an inherent conflict of interest. In short, the system would need to operate like a public system.
At the end of the day, the public welfare is best served when investments in schools enable all young people to become responsible citizens prepared to participate effectively in the political, social, and economic life of their democracy. As John Dewey wrote in The School and Society, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”