Betsy DeVos’ appointment as secretary of education under the Trump administration marks what the Detroit Free Press has justifiably labeled as the “twilight of public education.” The president-elect’s decision is one that hits particularly close to home for Michigan residents, as the DeVoses have spent decades turning the state into their political stomping ground for a series of egregious education policies.
But though she currently stands at the helm, Betsy DeVos didn’t build the boat that steered Michigan toward for-profit education, and she certainly won’t be the last person to board it.
The city of Detroit, in particular, has a complicated history of education policy that really kicked off with a little-known but absolutely pivotal Supreme Court case: Milliken v. Bradley.
In August of 1970, the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People sued Michigan officials, including Gov. William Milliken, over de facto school segregation in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. Four years later, the court ruled in a tight 5-4 decision that school systems had no obligation to prevent segregation across district lines — an outcome that indirectly opened the floodgates for white flight as families scrambled to the suburbs for higher-quality public education.
Like clockwork, population outflow deflated the city’s tax base over the course of the following decades, spreading resources painfully thin. Those who could not afford to flee inherited a lot of empty space as homes, businesses and schools were promptly vacated. This was far from an isolated incident and similar patterns have been noted in major cities across the country, tracing back to the post-WWII era but peaking around the early 1970s.
Then something seemingly unrelated happened. In 1993, Gov. John Engler retaliated against the persistent organization efforts of public employee unions (i.e., teachers’ unions) by signing a state law permitting the creation of “public school academies,” which would be publically funded but operate independently of the districts in which they were located. To give institutions financial incentive to found these academies, the state offered them a 3-percent share of government endowment.
Why does this matter? Simply put: The introduction of charter schools in Michigan was not in response to overwhelming demand by state residents (who are, as of 2016, struggling to fill roughly 30,000 open seats in Detroit) — it was born out of a desire for education to operate as a free-market enterprise. In other words, Detroit students didn’t need new schools; private owners simply needed a means of profit — and they got it with charters.
Over time, as is the case with most businesses, the strongest investors in charters became their strongest advocates. This “advocacy” took the form of powerful PACs like Dick and Betsy DeVos’ Great Lakes Education Project, which continues today to aggressively lobby for expansion of the charter system as well as reduced accountability for charter school officials.
One of GLEP’s more remarkable victories came in 2011, when state legislators agreed to lift the cap on the number of charter schools universities could found, as well as remove additional provisions on state monitoring of charter school performance.
This policy created the current landscape of underperforming charters existing in abundance alongside public schools that are, more often than not, higher in quality, but comparatively underfunded. In the 2012-2013 school year, the Free Press ranked 38 percent of charter schools below the 25th percentile in statewide academic performance. To put this into perspective, only 23 percent of traditional public schools garnered the same result. In Detroit itself, the numbers are much bleaker; in the 2013-2014 school year, a whopping 70 percent of the city’s charters ranked in the bottom percentile.
So if charter schools don’t measure up to traditional public schools and the state has no way to legally hold them accountable for their shortcomings, then why do we keep them around? The answer is simple: There is too much at stake for us to eradicate them — too much lobbying, too many investors, too much money. The system may not work for the students and communities it serves, but boy, does it work for generating independent revenue, and that, at the end of the day, is all people like Betsy DeVos really care about.
We wish we could say there is a solution on the horizon, that one day in the near future government officials will wake up and realize that their alternative education methods have been disastrous for Michigan’s students and, so long as they only serve to benefit private investors, will do no better throughout the rest of the country. But with DeVos’ appointment to Trump’s cabinet, that may not be the case for a while. In the meantime, we urge people to be diligent, to hold their politicians accountable for their mistakes (and believe us, over the next four years, they are fated to make a lot of them), and to keep fighting for what is equitable and just.
JustDems is the social justice committee of University’s chapter of College Democrats.