Betsy DeVos made history by being the first cabinet nominee ever to require a tie-breaking vote from the Vice President. She is certainly a controversial figure and her confirmation to such a position of power deserves proper examination from both sides. But lost in all the political hullabaloo is a serious discussion of the school choice movement and its effects on public education. It’s true that DeVos, as her detractors would point out, is against the public school system as we currently know it. But her stance by no means undermines the legitimacy of public education. On the contrary, school choice will most likely enhance traditional public schools.
One commonly misconstrued point about Devos’ views is her stance on charter schools. DeVos has steadfastly supported a charter school option in her home state of Michigan. Her opponents simply get the facts wrong about charter schools in general, however. Many people incorrectly believe that charter schools are able to select their students, choosing only the best of the best for themselves while leaving the lower-achieving students in the traditional public schools. While there are schools that can do this, they are not charters. Selective schools are a different beast, and it’s important to avoid criticizing charter schools on this point. Charter schools, on the other hand, typically perform enrollment through a lottery system, with each applicant receiving an equal chance to get in. While this system may change from state to state, depending on how legislatures set up their charter laws, lotteries are the method preferred for charter enrollment.
Detractors of charter schools also often state that they are for-profit institutions, or are equivalent to private schools. Charter schools, by law, are public schools which are uniquely purposed to allow for greater conformity to student needs in a given area. They are not private schools, nor are they privately funded. They are the recipients of public tax dollars just like traditional public schools, although most charter schools actually receive less money per student than traditional public schools.
But this doesn’t seem to hold them back. Despite receiving less money per student than traditional public schools, charters consistently punch above their weight when compared to the rest of the public school system. A yearly study conducted by the Mackinac Center in Michigan ranks public schools based on their academic performance, controlling for socioeconomic status. Of the top 20 schools in Michigan, only 6 were traditional public schools, with the remaining 14 slots going to either charter schools or selective schools, and the top spot going to a Star International Academy, a charter school in Dearborn Heights. Of the bottom 20 schools, all but 4 are traditional public schools. Not only do charters typically perform better than average, they also take on risks that traditional public schools don’t have to face. If a charter school fails to meet academic standards it is much more likely to be closed than a traditional public school.
The idea that charter schools can select their students or that they are private schools are clearly not true. But how exactly do charter schools help public schools? There are many examples. First, charters are given more freedom to experiment with their curriculum and teaching methods. This experimentation often gives way to useful developments which can be used in any classroom, charter or traditional. By sharing methods, traditional schools can take what is best from charter schools while avoiding the risk of experimentation themselves.
On top of that benefit, some of the pressure of having overly large classes in traditional public schools would be relieved by an expansion of charter schools. A common complaint among parents is that their students are unable to receive the attention necessary for proper education. For instance, one in five Chicago elementary schools are classified as overcrowded. The existence of a charter system would help to alleviate this issue, bringing smaller class sizes to public schools.
Most of all, charter schools help to bring market forces to the public education system. If a traditional public school isn’t working for a student and their family, why should they be forced to stay there? It’s not corporations or even Betsy DeVos that force kids to go to charters. It’s their parents who care for their children far more than Washington bureaucrats even will.
Charter schools offer an affordable and safe alternative to students who have needs that can’t be met within the traditional public school system. This incentivizes public schools to better meet the needs of their student population. In fact, a survey of 30 studies of different school choice programs across the country, 29 showed that the presence of more options improved the existing public schools. Only one study showed no significant effects.
The improvements these studies show make perfect economic sense. If there is only one public school in an area, they have a monopoly on those students. Due to the nature of monopolies, there is no incentive for them to improve their educational atmosphere. Charter schools change this and remove the monopoly from the traditional public schools.
I support charter schools because I support public education. Charters offer a public alternative to the current system, and they often create better outcomes for our students. Mrs. Devos’ obligation as Secretary of Education is to help America’s youth receive the best education possible, not to ensure that traditional public schools maintain their monopoly on American students. If she continues to support charter schools, she will be well on her way toward fulfilling that obligation.