Betsy DeVos has been U.S. Education Secretary for little more than a week, yet concerns about her leadership haven’t abated. One reason? The poor performance of charter schools in DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where charter accountability is weak—and students are underperforming.
A week ago I spoke with Christina Brown, principal of the New Heights Academy Charter School near Harlem. DeVos may be an avid promoter of charter schools, but Brown is concerned about Michigan’s lack of oversight, and fears that DeVos could weaken charter accountability across the nation.
“Removing oversight allows for anyone to do whatever they want to do with people’s children,” Brown says. “We want to make sure she supports those states that provide proper oversight of charter schools and extend that accountability to states that don’t.”
New Heights Academy
Brown welcomes the fact that New York provides oversight, and says it helps to keep schools honest.
Brown submits an annual report that shows how New Heights is progressing against its stated charter goals. There are also annual visits and an annual accountability comprehensive review that is submitted to the New York City Department of Education.
Representatives from the department “go to schools and evaluate what you’re doing,” Brown says. “They may change your charter terms if you’re not making progress.” Charter schools can also be closed.
Little Accountability but Lots of Money
Because charter schools are allowed a lot of latitude—to allow for creative approaches that benefit children—there is opportunity for fraud, Brown says.
“You can select your own curriculum or develop your own positions,” she says. But if you hire a friend and there’s no objective evaluation of your friend’s effect on student learning, that can be problematic.
“Money is being funneled into those schools [in Michigan] without any real evidence that students are making progress.”
Can DeVos Succeed?
In spite of her concerns, Brown suggested a way that DeVos could be effective.
“They say that great leaders surround themselves with experts. They then facilitate idea generation and execution. If DeVos develops a brain trust, then she may do a good job. She has to find real practitioners—those in private schools, public schools, and charter schools, and they need to educate her about our work and then support her as she makes decisions that impact our country’s school-age children.
“The only way she can determine policy is to be involved with educators—in urban, suburban, rural areas.”
And Brown appreciates DeVos’s position, recognizing that the education secretary wields tremendous power that could affect every school in the nation by imposing federal mandates that would supersede state law.
“Title 1 money, money for English language learners or special ed students—all that money comes from the federal government,” Brown says. “Schools must comply with federal mandates in order to get those federal dollars.”