News, Trump Administration

N.Y. Times: DeVos family charter reflects nation’s school choice tensions

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Today’s New York Times takes up a fascinating study of a Michigan charter launched by the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and how the aviation school’s success may be more of a reflection of its wealthy founders.

The report comes with DeVos and President Donald Trump proposing a massive expansion of school choice funding, no surprise given the Michigan billionaire’s well-documented backing for the choice movement.

From The New York Times:

Julia Stevenson scurried through the hallway as her school day came to a close, hoping to take advantage of as much daylight as possible to complete one of the last assignments of her high school career.

“I’m flying home today,” Ms. Stevenson, 18, said with a broad smile, explaining that she was hoping for clear skies and a beautiful view of Lake Michigan on the 300-mile round trip from Gerald R. Ford International Airport to her hometown, Traverse City, Mich.

With her pilot’s license in sight, Ms. Stevenson was about to graduate from the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a public charter school here founded by Dick DeVos, the billionaire husband of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Ms. DeVos has called it an inspiration for her dogged support for school choice, a shining example of what is possible when schools are able to meet students’ unique interests and needs. On Tuesday, she told thousands of charter school advocates that her husband’s school prepared students “to contribute in significant ways to our 21st-century economy.”

But with its deep-pocketed founder, corporate sponsors and remarkable capacity to raise money, the Aviation Academy may be more an example of what education can achieve with seemingly limitless funds than a model for other schools.

Like the neighborhood public schools of Grand Rapids, the academy, on the grounds of Gerald Ford Airport, receives $7,500 per student in state funding. This helps pay for its rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, curriculum and its faculty, including the four flight instructors on staff.

But it does not pay for the school’s two airplanes; many of its science, engineering and mathematics facilities; or its distinction as the only school in the country that offers flight instruction as part of the curriculum. Students can graduate and fly a plane before they can rent a car or legally have a beer.

How? The DeVoses alone have given more than $4 million to the school. Mr. DeVos donated an airplane from his private collection. Delta Air Lines donated another.

“The concept is good. I just wish a public school would’ve thought of starting that rather than have it be a charter,” said Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids teachers union. “But I guess we wouldn’t have been able to afford it. You have to have a boatload of money to start a school at the airport.”

The school, publicly funded and privately operated, is representative of the tensions in the school choice movement that have grown under the Trump administration.

As the paper notes, the school boasts of relatively diverse enrollment and its academic accomplishments, although its apparent success comes at a time of increasingly divisive politics surrounding charters.

From the Times:

While charter schools have long had bipartisan support — they have been championed by every president since Bill Clinton — the movement finds itself at a crossroads. Charter school advocates have long said they support traditional public education as well, but the Trump budget has presented them with something of a choice: us or them.

“The president has given a big hug to charter schools at the same time he’s slapped down other education priorities,” Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told a gathering of more than 4,000 charter leaders and advocates this week. “All of us need to understand that accepting the president’s support for charter schools doesn’t tie us to his whole agenda.”

The Aviation Academy has been at the center of similar debates in Michigan. The DeVoses backed the state’s first charter legislation, passed in 1993, and their support for expanding charter schools has been seen as a direct threat to public schools, particularly vulnerable ones in cities like Detroit.

On Tuesday, Ms. DeVos praised charter schools for proving that “quality and choice can coexist,” but said they “are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education.”

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