DeVos pushes for more school choice during Detroit visit

By: - September 20, 2019 7:25 pm

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

For the first time since she began serving as U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos came to visit students in a Detroit-area school. 

Dan Quisenberry

On Friday, DeVos toured Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA), a public charter school located just outside the Eastern Market area, where she talked about the ‘innovative’ school choice efforts in the city. Alongside her was Michigan Charter School Association President Dan Quisenberry.

During her first visit to Detroit as a member of the President Trump administration, she was highly critical of the city’s struggling educational system. 

When asked about the high number of K-12 institutions that have closed in the Detroit area, DeVos answered, “Every school, every educational institution, needs to make decisions based on their realities and how many students they’re serving.

“Schools that aren’t performing either need to get better or arguably, they should go out of business,” she continued. 

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

DeVos, a Grand Rapids native, has been one of the biggest advocates in the nation of private schools, vouchers and charter schools for decades. She pushed for legislation establishing charters in Michigan 25 years ago.

DeVos and her husband, GOP former gubernatorial nominee Dick DeVos, have founded multiple school choice initiatives in Michigan and across the country, including the Great Lakes Education Project. They also started the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a Grand Rapids charter school. The family’s foundation has also donated millions of dollars to charter schools and school choice initiatives.

DeVos said that Michigan offers less education freedom than other states.

“This state is behind, frankly, in offering parents and families more choices and options, more freedom,” she said. “There are many other states that have programs to empower families to make those choices, whether it’s a faith-based school, a virtual school or a course-choice school.”

How 25 years of charter schools have changed Detroit

However, the Michigan Legislature in recent years passed school choice legislation. In 2011, the state removed the required cap on the number of charter schools in the state and now the Michigan Department of Education no longer requires charter schools to submit an annual performance report.   

Michigan now has the most for-profit-run charter schools in the country, according to a 2017 New York Times investigation

After M-STEP results rolled out last month, the statewide standardized assessment showed strong growth in scores for Detroit schools, but they still remain lower than the state’s average.

What M-STEP scores showed us about Michigan’s education achievement gap

DeVos said she noticed the improvements in this Detroit public school academy.

“I wanted to come to Detroit because there’s been much said and written about Detroit schools, much of it inaccurate,” she said. “I wanted to come here, to a place that is clearly doing things well for students and on behalf of students, and to note that things are continuing to move in the right direction overall.”

This stop in Detroit was part of DeVos’ five-day “Back to School” tour to visit a variety of schools across six different states, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. She visited Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City on Thursday. 

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This year’s tour is focusing on DeVos’ Education Freedom scholarships proposal, introduced in both the House and Senate, which would provide a $5 billion annual federal tax credit for voluntary donations to state-based scholarship programs. 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

According to a press release from the Department of Education, the program would “help supplement local efforts to rethink school and expand education options for students in states across the country.”

Protesters outside of DEPSA, a group of about 30 people from the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) union and 482forward, a Detroit-based education organizing network, rallied for better public education during the entirety of her visit. 

To the protesters, I’d say that’s nonsense, first and foremost. And I’d say secondly, I think we all need to focus on doing what’s right for individual students,” DeVos said.

“Her tactics and beliefs have led to the demise of public education here in the city of Detroit,” said DFT President Terrence Martin. “We know far too well what emergency management, school choice and all these other tactics that Betsy DeVos tries to use does to public education.” 

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Lakia Wilson, DFT executive vice president, believes that DeVos isn’t seeing the “realities” of Detroit schools as she tours through DEPSA.

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

Here is Detroit, where we have schools that are over 100 years old, and you choose this nice, new facility? Why not visit the realities of Detroit Public Schools Community District?” Wilson asked. “Come see why it’s so important that we invest in public education, have funding for special education, repair our buildings, stop siphoning off students and putting them in these for-profit schools. We need to fully fund our public schools.”

But DeVos remains adamant about giving educational freedom to families.

“Schools shouldn’t be funded, students should be funded,” she said. “So our focus needs to be on what’s right for students. And we should be investing and thinking about doing what is right for individual students, not thinking about buildings.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.