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Setting the record straight on Betsy DeVos and charter schools in Michigan

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by Jeanne Allen
Washington Examiner
December 5, 2016

With Betsy DeVos likely the next Secretary of Education, the sharks of the status quo are circling. There is all sorts of misinformation about her home state of Michigan’s vibrant charter school movement and whether such schools in Detroit have succeeded or failed in a city that is failing its people on just about everything else.

It’s time to set the record straight about one of the pioneers and most successful charter school movements in the nation.

Let’s start with student achievement. According to a highly regarded study, in just one year Michigan charter school students earn an additional two months of learning gains over their traditional public school counterparts. For Detroit, charter students get an additional three months of learning in math and reading when compared to their traditional school peers.

When it comes to accountability, there is no comparison: Charter school authorizers in Michigan (mostly universities) have closed 67 schools statewide since charter schools came into existence in the Great Lakes state. In Detroit, 22 charter schools have been closed for academic or financial reasons. To put this data in perspective, Michigan’s charter school closure rate is about 22 percent, whereas the national charter school closure rate is 15 percent. Michigan charter school authorizers take accountability seriously, and close schools when they know they can no longer effectively serve students. Meanwhile, Michigan spends billions on traditional K-12 education, yet not a single traditional public school has been closed for academic reasons.

The concept of charter schools is to provide educators and school leaders with the flexibility to do their job, while being firm in expecting them to meet the goals they set forth in their charter. That’s why the vast majority of charters serve more poor and at-risk students than traditional public schools, and do so with success. They’re able to do so because they are judged rigorously on what they do, not the process by which they do it. It’s about results, not paperwork or bureaucracy, the very kind that stifles innovation and discourages great educators.

That’s why, even above what is legally required, authorizers such as Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University provide annual reports to charter board members on charter school academic, operational and financial performance. Michigan authorizers are national leaders in their effort to use community data including blight, population density, crime and public transportation in their review of proposed school sites. The Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers even launched a web-based system to make these data more accessible and public.

Authorizers must take into account many parameters to approve a new school. From 2004 to 2014, Central Michigan received 259 charter school applications, 22 of which actually became operational. From 2010 to 2014, 117 new charter schools have opened in Michigan while 26 were closed, a net gain of 23 schools.

These data are available to the public, but many observers simply repeat critiques as if they’ve studied the numbers. While there are many people responsible for the benefits of charter schools in Michigan, DeVos’ contribution is considerable. She ensured legislators had access to credible information, were supported in their efforts to create new opportunities for kids, and that families had access to the choices that wealthy Americans take for granted. That’s a fact.

Jeanne Allen is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. She is CEO and founder of the Center for Education Reform. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.