AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now we're going to take a look at another one of Donald Trump's Cabinet picks. The president-elect wants Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education. DeVos is a billionaire philanthropist and Republican fundraiser. She's also been a big champion of the school choice movement both in her home state of Michigan and nationally. That includes efforts to expand charter schools and vouchers which help parents send their children to private schools using public money.
Now, we'll hear more about the issue of vouchers in just a moment. But first, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report on DeVos' track record in Michigan.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The unofficial motto of the Grand Rapids area charter high school founded by Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, could be no pilot left behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE)
WESTERVELT: One of West Michigan Aviation Academy's two Cessna 172 airplanes chugs down the tarmac at the airport just outside Grand Rapids adjacent to the charter school.
MADELYNN BENEDICT: When I came here, it just opened a whole new world for me, and I've learned so much.
WESTERVELT: In a small maintenance hangar, 18-year-old senior Madelynn Benedict waits her turn to take flight. She switched from an uninspiring public high school, she says, to this aviation and STEM-themed charter during her sophomore year.
BENEDICT: My parents actually thought it was crazy when I was like, I want to transfer. And they were like, but you're halfway through your high school career; don't you want to stay in, like, your safe area? And I'm like, no, I want to go fly.
WESTERVELT: Today, Benedict and hundreds of others here want to fly and are aiming for a career in aviation. Patrick Cywayna, the Aviation Academy's CEO, says Betsy and Dick DeVos helped build the charter and got it off the ground literally. They donated the first Cessna. Delta Airlines donated the second. Today, Cywayna says there's a long waiting list to attend this tuition-free charter.
PATRICK CYWAYNA: I think the word choice says it all. The philosophy of our school from Dick and Betsy obviously is to provide opportunities for all kids. So the word opportunity and choice to me go hand in hand.
WESTERVELT: That mantra of opportunity, choice and competition has been the guiding principle for Betsy DeVos in Michigan and nationally. Initiatives she supported have included efforts to expand the number of charters in the public school system, limit oversight and regulation of charters as well as tuition tax credits and voucher programs that use public money to help students attend private schools.
Unions have long warned that charter and voucher plans take badly needed funds from traditional public schools and can push profit over learning. Some 80 percent of Michigan's charter schools today are for-profit, a far higher percentage than other states. And many charters are not doing as well academically as this well-funded aviation academy.
Tulane University's Doug Harris points to Detroit where many charters have underperformed. He's an economist and generally thinks choice and free markets are good things. But he says DeVos promotes an unbridled approach to choice with limited or no oversight. He calls it a triumph of ideology over evidence.
DOUG HARRIS: There's a common pattern. And the best-case scenario is that they don't work. And the worst-case scenario is they - they're actually worse than the alternatives.
WESTERVELT: Harris points to the data. A large study his research center did shows that students who got vouchers in Louisiana's statewide program saw their test scores drop. Michigan doesn't have vouchers despite efforts by DeVos to create them.
But Harris says add in what he calls Detroit's bungled experiment with unregulated charter schools, and the evidence is overwhelming that an unrestrained approach to choice is a recipe for failure.
HARRIS: It has not worked in Michigan, and it hasn't worked in the other places where she's worked. In research, we almost never see a negative effect of things, but we're actually seeing it in the policies that she's espousing.
WESTERVELT: DeVos backers point out that charters have boosted student achievement in cities including Boston, New York and New Orleans. Harris points out those cities have robust oversight and regulation unlike Michigan. DeVos may now get a chance to push her favored approach to choice nationally under President Trump. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.