Keep school reform focus on families

Jim Barrett

When businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad publicly opposed Betsy DeVos’ nomination for secretary of education earlier this month, liberals snagged on this to argue that even those who embraced the school reforms she champions did not want her in that job.

It was convenient for their narrative, but simply not true.

On the surface, Broad and DeVos have much in common. Both have been successful in their careers and are people of great wealth who have devoted considerable time and resources to the same noble goal of improving education for all children. Beyond this, they don’t appear to be in the same camp.

Here’s why: Broad’s reforms focus on school buildings and institutions, whereas DeVos’ are centered on parents and families.

For example, one institutional reform promoted by Broad — the creation of “recovery school districts” — hinges on attracting the best-and-the-brightest to assume control of struggling schools. Other similar initiatives rely heavily on placing the right leader in the right building. On the surface, these ideas are intuitive, easy-to-explain, and produce the type of nice, straight lines of control on organizational charts that those in charge of large enterprises like.

Contrast that with DeVos’ approach of returning power to parents by allowing them to select among an increasingly diverse array of educational choices — district, charter and private — in all types of settings, ranging from traditional buildings to online environments. Under this model, all of these options are overseen with strong public accountability that eliminates failure and incentivizes performance, as well as through the healthy competitive pressures this type of dynamic marketplace naturally creates.

Michigan provides a clear contrast of how these reforms work, where both approaches were tried simultaneously.

Nearly six years ago, the Broad-backed recovery school district in Michigan, the Educational Achievement Authority, was formed to take over and turn around some of Detroit’s worst schools. Hopes for its success were high.

Simultaneously, DeVos-backed policies were at work to expand choice and charter school options, coupled with strong oversight, to create more and better options.

The results today are striking. Broad’s EAA is widely seen as a failure that allowed kids to languish in schools where learning simply didn’t take place.

DeVos’ approach over the last six years has been far more successful. It allowed more kids to exit failing schools for better options.

An apples-to-apples comparison clearly demonstrates the differences between Broad’s and DeVos’ approaches. One is about control by elite managers and institutions; the other about empowerment — trusting individuals and families to make the best educational choices.

It is clear which type of reform is best for our kids and our country.

Jim Barrett was the president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce for 32 years and currently serves on the board of directors of the National Charter Schools Institute.