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Lansing — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos admitted Sunday she does not know if traditional public schools in Michigan have improved since she and others began pushing to open the state up to choice and charter schools.

The West Michigan native appeared to struggle with some answers during a CBS “60 Minutes” interview when pressed on her assertion that traditional public schools in places like Florida improved when students were given more choice to attend different schools.

“Now, has that happened in Michigan?” asked reporter Lesley Stahl. “We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.”

Recent analyses show Michigan students have continually made the least improvement nationally on standardized test scores since 2003, and it is one of five states where early reading scores have declined over that span.

DeVos, who was a Republican megadonor and major player in Michigan education policy before President Donald Trump picked her for the national post, said there are “lots of great options and choices for students here.”

But “have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” Stahl asked again.

“I don’t know. Overall, I, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos responded.

Florida is one of the few states with a voucher and tax credit program allowing students from lower-income families to choose private schools with public money. Michigan has expanded its school choice and charter school options during the past two decades, but vouchers are prohibited by the state Constitution.

While she did not cite specific data, Stahl told DeVos that Michigan “is not doing well” and that “the public schools here are doing worse than they did.”

DeVos replied: “Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.”

Charter debate reopened

The “60 Minutes” interview highlighted a long-running debate in Michigan, which opened the door to publicly funded charter schools in 1994 and is now a leading state for charter academies. Detroit ranks third in the nation for the percentage of students who attend charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Flint ranks second.

Advocates say students in some charter schools outperform similarly situated peers, but critics argue charters have hurt traditional public schools by siphoning students and the funding that follows them.

Overall student performance in Michigan has “declined dramatically” compared with other states since the early 2000s, said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, which does not advocate for or against charter schools.

Michigan students ranked 41st in the nation for fourth-grade reading performance in 2015, down from 38th in 2013 and 28th in 2003, according to the group’s recent analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress standardized test scores.

“Clearly choice alone is not a solution for improvement for all groups of students, and that’s particularly true for low-income students,” Arellano said. When it comes to poor children, “charter school students are actually preforming significantly worse on subjects like third grade reading.”

“Clearly choice alone is not a solution for improvement for all groups of students, and that’s particularly true for low-income students,” Arellano said. When it comes to poor children, “charter school students are actually preforming significantly worse on subjects like third grade reading.”

Florida has improved performance by combining expanded school choice with tougher accountability measures, teacher training focused around early literacy and “incredible educational leadership” under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, she said.

“In Michigan, we put a huge bet on unregulated choice to lift outcomes for all students, especially for poor and black students, without doing all that other work” Arellano said, noting lax rules governing charter school authorizers.

DeVos strikes back

DeVos on Monday tweeted out NAEP results showing Michigan students had performed at or above national averages for grade 4 reading and math in the 1990s before falling behind in recent years.

“Here’s what we shared with @60Minutes, which of course they didn’t show you: Michigan, like much of the nation, isn’t doing well enough to prepare students. Scores are stagnant,” she tweeted. “Students need more options, and we must rethink our approach to education.”

DeVos then pointed to an August Michigan Public Radio story noting that Detroit charter schools did twice as well on Michigan’s standardized M-STEP testing as the city’s traditional public schools, though both kinds of schools score low compared with other schools statewide.

“The reforms are helping, but there’s so much more to do,” she tweeted. “We must help all students be better prepared for strong futures.”

In the “60 Minutes” interview, Stahl also asked DeVos if she has seen the “really bad schools” and attempted to try and figure out what’s happening in them.

DeVos said she has “not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

“Maybe you should,” Stahl said.

“Maybe I should,” DeVos replied. “Yes.”

Charter advocates respond

DeVos helped launch the Great Lakes Education Project to lobby for school choice in Michigan and spearheaded a statewide school voucher ballot proposal that voters rejected in 2000.

Charter schools have helped raise “the expectations and the outcomes” for Michigan students, GLEP advocacy director Beth DeShone said Monday. But school choice “has certainly not been a silver bullet.”

Students who attend a charter for at least three consecutive years tend to show significant proficiency gains, DeShone said.

“As it relates to individual students and their ability to achieve educational outcomes, a lot of times charter schools are working for those kids.”

Michigan and its education department are “not doing well-enough for any student,” DeShone said, suggesting the need for added accountability for all schools.

An October 2017 analysis by statisticians with the Skillman Foundation found Detroit charter students in grades 3-8 showed roughly double the reading and math proficiency on state tests as students in traditional public schools and the former state-run Education Achievement Authority.

But data shows students across the state are not keeping pace with their peers in other states. An analysis by University of Michigan professor Brian Jacob found that Michigan students were at the bottom of the list when it comes to proficiency growth in the four measures of the exam.

According to the NAEP results, in 2015, the average math score of eighth-grade students in Michigan was 278 out of 500, compared with the national average score of 281. The average Michigan score has not significantly changed from 280 in 2013 and 277 in 2000.

In that year, the average reading scores of eighth-grade students in Michigan matched the national average of 264 out of 500, while the science scores of eighth-grade students in Michigan was slightly better at 154 out of 300 than the national average at 153.

Jacob’s analysis found that 29 percent of Michigan students performed at or about the “proficient level” on the NAEP exam in 2015. Those results were not significantly different from the 30 percent found in 2013 and the 28 percent recorded in 2000.

DeVos has consistently said the government should invest in students, not buildings or institutions. In places like Florida, she said, studies show that when there’s a large number of students who opt to go to different schools “the traditional public schools actually, the results get better, as well.”

Mitchell Robinson, who chairs music education at the Michigan State University College of Music and has studied DeVos, said school choice policies backed by DeVos have created problems in cities such as Detroit that those same policies are not going to fix.

“As an academic, I’d hate to call what Betsy DeVos thinks about education policy as a theory, because it has not been rigorously tested anywhere,” he said. “And if we’re going to use Michigan as the example, it’s a complete failure.”

But competition from charters is forcing traditional public school educators like Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to come up with new approaches to retain and educate city students, said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

“Charters and choice have improved public schools,” he said. “The difference is when you look at statewide data, there is not choice available in every community and districts have not necessarily responded.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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