Keithalmli at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
September 20, 2016; Bridge

Betsy DeVos, who is slated to be Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, has a very clear vision about American public education. She describes its current state as an “antiquated, top-down model of education…that originated in the 1800s in order to “educate the masses”—one that should be transformed because, in her opinion, our public schools “are not succeeding…in many cases, they are failing.”

Her goal for our children is noble: “Every child, no matter their zip code or their parents’ jobs, deserves access to a quality education.” Her idea for the public education of the future would create a fully open educational marketplace where each parent can select their child’s path from a menu that includes “vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.” Traditional neighborhood public schools managed by community-based school boards don’t appear on her list of options.

Her home state of Michigan has been the laboratory where DeVos and her husband have had two decades to see the effectiveness of her prescription. The results indicate that if her objective is to ensure that all children receive a quality education, her strategy will not work. On the other hand, if the goal is to convert education from a government service to a product that can be purchased in the open market, then Michigan is showing the way to teach children and make a profit. And if the plan is to sustain the barriers that separate white children from children of color and rich children from poor ones, then Michigan demonstrates that the Trump-DeVos strategy will succeed there, too.

Starting in 1996, Michigan has aggressively tried to make school choice a key part of the state’s educational strategy. Academic performance has not benefitted.

National testing shows that Michigan…has fallen markedly in national measures of classroom performance. As one example, the state is now ranked 41st in fourth-grade reading scores, from 28th in 2003. […] Venessa Keesler, a deputy superintendent for the Michigan Department of Education, noted that initial research indicates that students who used choice to change districts do not perform better…academically.

State Education Board President John Austin described the Michigan choice strategy as an “an unmitigated disaster for Michigan. […] Cross-district choice is less about learning than about competing for students and money.”

Intended or not, Michigan’s aggressive approach to school choice has widened the racial disparity of its public schools and weakened its communities. The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine has closely examined the impact on school districts in Michigan’s choice era and concluded that it has increased segregation and harmed Michigan’s students. As Gary Miron, a researcher and education professor at Western Michigan University who studies school choice data, told Bridge, “The outcomes we can measure show it’s leading to increased segregation and increased burdens for districts. If we are talking about choice as a market tool and we apply it as a market tool, there’s going to be winners and losers. Mostly kids are losing and your public schools are being damaged.”

Using Holland, Michigan, as a case example, the Bridge study found “Holland’s white enrollment has plummeted 60 percent, with 2,100 fewer white students.”

Today, whites comprise 49 percent of school-age children living in the district, but only 38 percent the school population (Hispanics make up 47 percent of Holland schools). […] 70 percent of Holland students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, more than double the district’s poverty rate when choice began.

From Holland to metro Detroit, Flint to Jackson, tens of thousands of parents across Michigan are using the state’s schools of choice program to move students out of their resident districts and into ones that are more segregated, a Bridge analysis of state enrollment data shows.

Currently, about 70 percent who choose a school outside the home district choose a school that’s less diverse than the one they previously attended.

The number of school districts statewide where fewer than half the students are white rose from 38 a decade ago to 55 last year. The number of charter schools where students of color are in the majority went from 119 in 2005 to 182 last year. […] As white students use choice to transfer to districts or charters with even higher white enrollment numbers, African American students are using the same law to attend predominantly black charter schools.

Students are hurt when they do not learn in a diverse environment, one that reflects the overall diverse nature of our country. For students already struggling with the negative impacts of poverty and community trauma, the benefits of an integrated school are profound. If our goal is good schools for all children, the Trump-DeVos strategy has not proven effective. If Michigan’s 20 years of experience stand as an indicator of what the Trump-DeVos vision will be, we have much to worry about as a nation—that is, unless you are looking to invest in K-12 education or believe in separating our children by race and economic status.—Martin Levine