The debate over education reform will look fundamentally different under President Donald Trump than it has for the last eight years under President Obama. With the teachers’ unions sulking on the sidelines, the discussion is shifting from whether to expand choice to how. On one side are the parent-centered reformers, who want to see open markets encourage educational entrepreneurship and parent-driven accountability. On the other are the system-centered reformers, who want to see closed systems designed and administered by experts.

Tulane University economics professor Doug Harris penned a column in the New York Times declaring that Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary “is a triumph of ideology over evidence.” According to Harris, DeVos is the “architect” of the Detroit charter system, “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” That’s a hefty charge from an eminent education expert. But Harris’s piece neatly illustrates why Americans don’t—and shouldn’t—trust the “experts.”

Harris points out that Detroit Public Schools are ranked among the worst-performing systems in the nation, and claims that one “well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools.” Except that’s not what that study found. The 2013 study of Michigan charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that “charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.” A 2015 CREDO study of 41 major cities concluded that Boston, Newark, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, “provide essential examples of school-level and system-level commitments to quality that can serve as models to other communities.”

Notably absent from that list of systems to emulate is New Orleans’s, which Harris hails as “radically different” and superior due to its stronger central oversight. Yet, aside from the higher proportion of under-performing charters in New Orleans, CREDO found almost no difference in the performance of charter schools relative to their traditional public school neighbors. But there is a difference. Tens of millions of philanthropic dollars and legions of bright young educators were funneled into New Orleans. The fact that the Motor City, without such advantages, managed results that were barely distinguishable from those in the Big Easy suggests that the decentralized charter model may be a more promising approach.  

Now, as an honest broker of the evidence, allow me to add three caveats. First, the relative gains posted by Detroit charter students are less impressive in absolute terms because the achievement of their public-school peers is so low. Second, there are significant problems in Detroit’s charter sector. For a thorough account, see Robin Lake’s chronicle of the extreme difficulties Detroit parents face in understanding and navigating their options. Third, as any sober researcher will admit, it’s absurd to draw a sweeping conclusion from a sample size of two. It’s especially absurd when the two cities in question are as different as New Orleans and Detroit. In New Orleans, the wrath of God washed away the traditional system and gave reformers free rein to build a new system, unimpeded, from the ground up. In Detroit, charters sprouted, one by one, and had to contend with a deeply dysfunctional district sputtering into inexorable decline.

Cheap though it was, Harris fired the first shot in a serious debate. The Michigan model of school choice is abhorred by the system-centered experts. It allows many charter authorizers to sponsor schools rather than letting a single central body do so. It is friendly to for-profit operators rather than reflexively hostile. It is defined more by a host of single-site “mom-and-pop” charter schools than by a handful of big, brand-named networks. It relies on parents rather than administrators to police quality and close failing schools. The “experts” at the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers award Michigan’s charter law a dismal nine points out of 33. 

Yet, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which evaluates states on the health of their charter sector rather than their legislative adherence to a particular policy prescription, rates Michigan third in the nation. Should other states look to Michigan as a model? The parent-centered reformers will argue yes, saying that real progress comes from enabling energetic educators to establish new schools and trusting families to make the best decision for their kids. The system-centered reformers will argue no, we need experts to tell us which schools are worth opening and closing. 

As this debate moves into state legislatures across the country, a word to the wise: never trust an expert who swears his side has the “evidence” and the other side has only “ideology.”   

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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