One year ago, President Trump nominated Betsy DeVos for secretary of education. Shortly thereafter, the technocratic faction of the education reform establishment joined with the teachers’ unions to declare war against her and against Michigan’s charter schools. The evidence, they said, is clear: Michigan’s charter schools are uniquely awful. But the evidence has been piling up that Michigan charter schools are actually unusually good.
The first shot fired came from the opinion pages of the New York Times, where Tulane University professor Doug Harris declared that DeVos’ nomination represented, “a triumph of ideology over evidence.” He held her responsible for charter schools in Detroit, which he called “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”
Oddly, Harris linked his claim to a Stanford study showing that Detroit’s charter schools significantly outperform its traditional public schools. He, and the rest of Michigan charter critics, also ignored studies from the Mackinac Center and Excellent Schools Detroit that also showed a substantial charter edge.
But no matter. The narrative was set. The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Politico, the New Republic, Newsweek, and others piled on: it’s the Wild West out there, there aren’t enough regulations, there isn’t enough accountability, there are too many for-profit operators. Never mind the best evidence at the time, from another Stanford study, that showed that Michigan’s charter schools outperform its traditional public schools on 52 of 56 metrics.
Michigan charter schools are twice as likely as district schools to operate in urban centers, they serve a majority minority student population, and a large majority of charter students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Sadly, students with this demographic profile don’t tend to post high scores. But the hope is that charter schools could help close the achievement gap by demonstrating stronger academic progress. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card, tracks state level data on 4th and 8th grade math, reading and science at the state level for the 2009 to 2015 period. During this period, American schools declined in most categories, and Michigan’s public schools showed little progress. But Michigan charter students performed substantially higher on all six subject exams. In 2015, Michigan’s charter students were about a full grade-level ahead of their 2009 counterparts in reading and math.
And earlier this month, researchers from the University of Michigan presented a groundbreaking paper showing stronger evidence still. It was a randomized control trial, the gold standard of social science, of a major for-profit charter network operating in Michigan. It showed that charter students scored higher in state math exams and reading exams. And whereas in most states charters appear to hurt academic achievement for suburban and rural students, in Michigan non-urban students actually saw the strongest growth.
Some reformers, who claim to care solely about evidence, have already and will likely continue to ignore the evidence of Michigan’s charter school success. The reason has less to do with data, and more to do with the fact that Michigan’s charter sector isn’t tightly controlled by “experts.”
In addition to Michigan, technocratic reformers have a difficult time explaining charter school success in states like Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Oregon. Whereas pro-regulation charter advocates give these states low grades for policy, charter schools in these states show either very high NAEP scores, very high rates of academic progress, and sometimes both. Maybe that’s because parents and teachers, given the freedom and flexibility, can do more to open good schools and close bad ones than the self-proclaimed experts. The “experts” who claim to follow the “evidence” may claim that Michigan is a failure. But the “evidence” of success makes you wonder whether these “experts” aren’t actually just ideologues.
Fortunately, state legislators and policymakers tend to be less ideological and more open to evidence. And the evidence suggests that they should look to Michigan, and its flexible, parent-driven charter system, as a case study in how to do school choice right.
Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Matthew Ladner is a senior fellow at Ed Choice.