I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, November 25, 2016

What Can We Learn About Betsy DeVos From Her Husband's Charter School?

And so it begins:
It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos, Donald J. Trump’s pick as the cabinet secretary overseeing the nation’s education system. 
For nearly 30 years, as a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence. 
A daughter of privilege, she also married into it; her husband, Dick, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan a decade ago, is heir to the Amway fortune. Like many education philanthropists, she argues that children’s ZIP codes should not confine them to failing schools. 
But Ms. DeVos’s efforts to expand educational opportunity in her home state of Michigan and across the country have focused little on existing public schools, and almost entirely on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for students and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”
Yes, elections do have consequences, and while I am much more fearful about what is going to happen to our foreign relations, our economy, and our planet under President Trump (can't get used to saying that...), DeVos's nomination makes clear that public schools will also get beat up but good over the next four years.

I'll let others take us through the history of Mrs. DeVos's war on public schools; instead, let me access some data I have immediately available to give us a little insight on what we can expect from the Education Department in the near future.

You see, Betsy and Dick Devos have money -- a lot of money. And while much of it goes into political activity, they do have a few pet projects worth looking at:
MRS. DEVOS: There are probably some funders who believe that charter schools are the be-all and end-all answer. To them, I would simply point out that charter schools take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today. Charter schools, on the other hand, take time and resources. Believe me. My husband started a charter high school.
MRS. DEVOS: Yes. Actually, it was my idea for him. He’s a pilot. He flies everything—jets, helicopters, you name it. And, of course, he’s been involved in educational choice for as long as I have. A few years ago, I asked him, “Why don’t you combine your love of flying and your love of education? You could start an aviation school!” And that’s exactly what he did. He started the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school located at the Gerald Ford Airport in Grand Rapids.
PHILANTHROPY: Talk about a niche.
MRS. DEVOS: It is! Of course, they have high academic standards, in order to prepare students for real-world careers in aviation, whether it’s as pilots, aeronautical engineers, or airport administrators. There are many opportunities in aviation, and if you can interest high-schoolers in those careers, you’ll find that they tend to focus more on their courses in math and science. This is the school’s third year, so we have 9th through 11th grades, adding another grade every year. Next year, they will see the first senior class. [emphasis mine]
It must be nice to be so rich you can just start a school, based on whatever theme you want, just for the hell of it...

West Michigan Aviation Academy is located in Kent County, Michigan; Grand Rapids is the county seat. The school's profile should be an excellent window into what DeVos sees as the ideal education system. In fact, DeVos herself would likely argue comparing WMAA to other schools within the county is more than fair:
PHILANTHROPY: Apart from increasing educational choice, what do you see as especially promising education-reform strategies?
MRS. DEVOS: I’m most focused on educational choice. But, thinking more broadly, what we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home. We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible. One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished. Within the right framework of legislation, that freedom will ultimately be healthy for the education of our kids. 
OK, then -- let's not confine ourselves to comparing WMAA to schools in its immediately neighborhood. Let's, instead, compare it to all of the high schools within its county. We'll start by looking at the school's student population relative to its peers (click to enlarge).

Dick DeVos's charter school has one of the lowest shares of special education students in its county.

Understand that Betsy DeVos is absolutely fine with this. In her opinion, we would be better off segregating children who "struggle" from those who do not:

50:50 "But there's also a contract that parents and students will sign that talks about what the expectations are for personal behavior and commitment to one's education and so forth. And some students self-disqualify, based on what expectations are communicated. 
"It is true that traditional public schools essentially have to take whomever comes through their doors. By the same token, I know that there are a lot of schools of choice in various forms -- whether they're private and parochial schools or charter schools -- that specifically look for students that have been troubled and struggling in another setting."
Let me be clear here: I don't have a problem with educational options for students who do not thrive within the traditional public school system. Nor do I necessarily have a problem with some students who have special needs attending schools specifically set up to address those needs.

But let's get a few things straight: schools that serve special student populations will almost certainly not perform as well on standardized tests as schools that don't serve those students. That does not mean they are "failures"; far from it. Further, schools that serve special education students need more resources to provide their students with an adequate education.

If you set up schools that do not serve many students with special needs, you will inevitably concentrate those students into other schools which must accept those students. DeVos herself admits this -- and yet she still praises the schools, like her husband's charter school, that place a burden on the rest of the system. For example:

Dick DeVos's charter school enrolls relatively few Limited English Proficient students. Again, there may be good cause to set up a school like Newcomers Community (on the far right of the graph), which has a very high LEP percentage. But many of the other traditional public schools are taking at least some LEP students; WMAA is not.

Again, we can debate whether it's a good idea to isolate many of these students from the rest of the community. But we all have to agree -- unless we're totally ignorant of the realities of school finance -- that schools serving more students with special needs must have more resources. One would think, therefore, that a school like WMAA, with its relatively small special education and LEP populations, wouldn't be spending nearly as much as the other high schools in the area.

One would be wrong:

Dick DeVos's charter school spends more on salaries for all employees per pupil than almost every other high school in its county. Hmm... well, Betsy DeVos says she wants to pay "good" teachers more. Maybe all that extra money is going into instructional salaries...

Or not:

Despite its high spending on total salaries, Dick DeVos's charter school spending on instructional salaries is fairly typical. Which leads me to wonder: where is all that extra money going? You'd think Betsy DeVos would be looking into this, because she's simply shocked at how profligate our nation's schools have become (from the video above):
30:09 The reality is our country, as a nation, spends more than every other country in the world per child on education, with the exception of, I think it's Luxembourg, a major economic force in the world (smirks). 
First of all, that's a grossly misleading comparison, for all sorts of reasons. But even if we set that aside, Mrs. DeVos, let me ask you: If we're spending too much on our schools, shouldn't your husband's own charter be showing us how to "do more with less"?

I can tell you on thing for sure: WMAA is not spending its money on maintaining a highly-experienced teaching force.

Teachers gain the most in effectiveness over the first few years of their careers; yet nearly half of the teachers at Dick DeVos's charter school have less than three years of experience. To be fair: WMAA is quite typical for charter schools in Kent County, most of which employ relatively large numbers of inexperienced teachers.

What's the takeaway here?

- Betsy DeVos says American schools are "failing," yet her husband's charter school, which she holds up as an exemplar, educates far fewer special education and LEP students compared to the other schools in the region.

- Betsy DeVos believes America's schools are overspending, yet her husband's charter school spends more on total salary than almost any other school in the region.

- Betsy DeVos says "choice" will unleash innovation and efficiency, yet her husband's charter school doesn't appear to put much of its spending advantage into actual instruction.

- Betsy DeVos says she values good teachers, yet her husband's charter school has a staff where nearly half of the teachers are inexperienced.

High spending schools, enrolling proportionally fewer students with special needs, taught by inexperienced teachers. That's Betsy DeVos's vision for American education -- just ask her husband.

Everyone OK with this?

I am, bigly!


StateAidGuy said...

I honestly don't know, but maybe the WMAA has a lot of expensive aviation equipment? Flight simulators? Mechanics programs?

It seems like a very specialized vo-tech to me. Don't we accept that vo-techs have higher per pupil costs?

Duke said...

Jeff, I am the second-to-last guy on the planet to argue AGAINST making sure schools have adequate funds.

If WMAA wants to spend money, then Yea! Good for them...

But don't go around lamenting that the US is spending too much per pupil. EVERY schools should have access to adequate resources.

David Britten said...

I must be missing something. The only expenditures mentioned in this article are teacher salaries. You can dig through more of the financials and other data at https://www.mischooldata.org/DistrictSchoolProfiles/FinancialInformation/Revenues/RevenuesBySource.aspx. This particular link will show you that "other sources" (gee, wonder where that comes from?) make up 68% of the aviation school's revenue. Just think what a neighborhood public high school could do with that revenue stream.

Duke said...

David, as I said, I used data I happened to have immediately available. I'll be looking deeper into WMAA soon. I believe that 68% figure refers to bonds issued, which raises a host of other questions. More to come...