Getting from School Choice to Educational Quality

By Cindy Veenstra

Thoughts on Michigan’s approach to school choice and charter schools, Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and recommendations for more educational quality with charter schools.   

In recent years, with increased collaboration among schools, industry and local communities, we have experienced more success in preparing students for college and jobs in industry. Much progress has been made but more is needed.  Too many students still are not prepared for the academic rigors of college. With the demand for STEM jobs, especially in engineering, technology and computing, the jobs of the future will require some post-secondary education, minimally at a community college.

It is in this environment, that school choice and public charter schools have been given a voice.  Parents demand more choices for their children’s education, including STEM programs,  to assure a good education.  This blog discusses the need for improving Michigan’s charter schools and the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a strong advocate and influencer for charter schools in Michigan, as secretary of education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Designee is an advocate for school choice

With the presidential election, school choice and charters schools are central to discussions on education. President-elect Donald Trump supports charter schools and has nominated Betsy DeVos from Michigan to be the next secretary of education.  She is a billionaire, a former Republican Party chair in Michigan, and a passionate school choice advocate who has made significant donations in the cause for expanding charter schools. This Detroit News article provides a summary of her background. 

Since I live in Michigan, I know the reputation of the DeVos family, of their philanthropy and good deeds for both K-12 and higher education, especially in the Grand Rapids area. I also know of the influence that the DeVos family have had in advocating with state legislators for more charter schools in Detroit. However, I have concerns about the nomination of Betsy Devos as secretary of education. From my readings, DeVos has little experience as an educator, or with educational research.  The Department of Education supports significant educational research and it is imperative that it continue.  In addition, I have concerns about her actions to expand Michigan charter schools.  I selected these three articles to describe DeVos’ efforts with charter schools in Michigan and Detroit; they highlight my concerns.

How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools (New York Times)

Michigan Spends  $1B on Charter Schools but Fails to Hold Them Accountable (Detroit Free Press) 

A sobering look at what Betsy DeVos did to education in Michigan — and what she might do as secretary of education (The Washington Post)

The inference from these articles is that Ms. DeVos is so passionate and supportive of school choice and charter schools that as secretary of education, public school systems would suffer.  She proposed shutting down Detroit Public Schools (see Detroit News op-ed Feb. 22, 2016).  Even with the growth in charter schools, we will always need our traditional public schools. They are a central pillar of our communities. The Detroit Free Press article points out the need for more oversight and accountability for Michigan charter schools. In addition, the same quality standards should apply to the charter schools that apply to the public school system.  DeVos leaves the impression that with choice and competition, she believes a quality education will occur. But it is with both choice and quality/oversight that we achieve desired student success outcomes in charter schools.  In addition, with a strong quality and accountability information system showing each school’s key educational measures for success, it is much easier for parents to judge and choose a school.

 In Detroit, it has been a grand experiment with too many charter schools, in hyper-competition. There are now 300 charter schools in Michigan.  Most of the charter schools are run by for-profit organizations.  I am concerned that we are putting students first; I cannot overemphasize K-12 students’ need for stability in schools they attend.  

Facts about Michigan charter schools performance include:

  •   About 80% of the charters have academic achievement in reading and math below the average for    Michigan.
  •    Close to 70% of the Michigan charters perform less than the average for Detroit Public  Schools among     African-Americans for 8th grade math.
  •     Michigan charters serve 145,000 students and take in more than $1 Billion in taxpayer funds.

Source: The Education Trust Midwest:  “Accountability for All: 2016 The Broken Promise of Michigan’s Charter Sector”

These facts suggest that with the $1 Billion in taxpayer funds, Michigan citizens are not getting a good return on educational quality from charter schools.

 Recommendations for school choice and quality control/accountability for charter schools.

1) Benchmark with the Massachusetts charter schools system. Quality counts and there are state programs that have better quality control of charters.   U.S. Secretary of Education John King is an advocate for good charter schools and has called “for greater quality control in Michigan’s charter sector, citing Massachusetts as an example of a state with the proper checks in place.” (See this Michigan Future blog.)  Massachusetts is often identified as a state leader for managing quality control for charter schools such that students are really benefiting with higher levels of achievement.  There appear to be three distinct differences between the models used by Michigan and Massachusetts.

a) Michigan has no cap on the number of charter schools and in some areas of Detroit there are too many.  To ensure quality, Massachusetts has insisted on a cap on the number of charters, as a percentage of overall district funding.

b) About 80% of the charter schools are run by for-profit organizations in Michigan. (New York Times, 12/12/16)  In Massachusetts, very few are run by for-profit organizations.   

c)  In Massachusetts, there is a uniform accountability rule for charter schools to be approved. All charter schools must have a proven track record of success or leadership and be approved by the state’s Board of Education. In Michigan, a proven track record of success is not necessarily required, with their 40 authorizers (mostly universities) having different criteria. If a charter school cannot acquire approval from one authorizer, they can try another one.   Michigan's system leads to less quality control from initial approval to yearly performance reviews.  

(See this link to the Education Trust Midwest report, “Accountability for All: 2016 The Broken Promise of Michigan’s Charter Sector,” p. 12 for more information. The report also includes ratings of authorizers and the Michigan charter governance structure, pp. 14-21)

In support of the need for oversight and accountability, consider these thoughts from Phil Power, chairman for the Center for Michigan.  In Bridge Magazine , Power writes: “Unfortunately, Michigan does not seem to have followed examples of states with best charters.  The reasons for our lagging are pretty clear. One key to success is tough oversight…Massachusetts has some of the best charters in the country, resulting from tough state oversight ”. 

A first step is to look at Massachusetts' approach to oversight to improve Michigan and other states’ strategies to deliver strong student learning outcomes for all charter schools.

2) Quality Improvement and Defining Best Practices in Public Schools. We must not forget about the urban public schools.  Many are improving significantly, providing a good education to students and in the process connecting students with their community.  As an example, consider the Chicago Public Schools. In a recent article in the Washington Post Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, writes on the successes of the Chicago Public Schools-- that it has seen a 16% increase in graduation rate since 2011, and that the 8th grade math scores were at the top of urban districts in improvement in math scores. 62% of its graduates enrolled in college. He attributes this success to improved educational quality, in four areas:  recognize the importance of developing principal leadership; support full-day preschool to prevent early dropout; at the high school level, invest in magnet schools, IB and STEM programs; and work to turn-around failing schools.  Significantly, he places the focus on quality, an idea we should all embrace. He states: “Promoting choice at the expense of quality isn’t an educational strategy, it’s a political agenda. Rather, those of us creating education policy need to simply focus on providing the quality choices that students deserve.”   

Thus in the landscape of school choice, the Chicago Public Schools provides a powerful example of improvement in education; public schools will always be part of the system of education of our children and we should take note from the experiences of Chicago and other public school systems about their continuous improvement practices that work.

3) Quality with Baldrige. Discussion of Chicago schools and continuous improvement leads me to discussing the Baldrige framework, a systems approach to continuous improvement and quality, used by educators.  Each year, there is an annual Baldrige National Quality Award given to outstanding recipients who have used this framework of quality and performance excellence. 

The Baldrige award is a national award that was established by President Reagan to encourage and improve performance excellence in companies, so it has a strong focus on organizational best practices, data-driven leadership, quality improvement and satisfied customers. Later, a Baldrige criterion for the education sector was developed to encourage quality and excellence in schools and colleges. The award recognizes best school systems that are student-centered in learning, understand processes that really work, use of data to make decisions and involve customers, community and the workforce for an integrated approach to quality, continuous improvement and educational excellence.

Although several school systems have been received this award, only one charter school is a recipient. I would like to highlight the Charter School of San Diego (CSSD), a 2015 recipient of the Baldrige National Quality Award.  It is an exemplary middle and high school. Read this news article about the school.

Some of the school’s highlights are:

  • “Education at CSSD is personalized, individualized, and high quality. “  (stated school value)
  •  The drop-out rate is less than 3%.
  •   Students and parents indicate close to or a 100% satisfaction level.
  •   CSSD has a high rate of instructional staff retention.
  •   76% of students who proficient in math for the 10th grade CAHSEE Math test (in Baldrige  application,  p. 32)

Mary Bixby, CEO of the Charter School of San Diego, views the school’s Baldrige journey as follows: “The Baldrige journey has allowed us to better serve our students, their families, and the community at large. The individuals who make up our organization are deeply invested in offering a superior educational experience.  Using the Baldrige approach to improvement has proven to be an excellent means of offering personalized instruction within a setting focused on excellence" (

With the number of low-performing charter schools in Michigan, the Baldrige framework is an approach that charter schools should consider to energize their continuous improvement strategies.


High levels of student achievement will lead to successful college graduates. It all starts at the K-12 level. With the increasing need for a STEM workforce, we need successful, high-performing K-12 public and charter schools. Just providing more choice through charter schools is not sufficient for assuring a good education.  Quality oversight is needed, similar to the approach used by Massachusetts.  This question needs to be asked: why has Michigan not adopted the quality control processes used by Massachusetts for improved charter school performance and good student learning outcomes?  

Using generally recognized best practices lead to improvement, and a good approach is to look at the Baldrige framework.  In particular, charter school administrators may find it useful to learn from the Baldrige journey of the Charter School of San Diego. 

Cindy Veenstra, PhD, is principal consultant and researcher with Veenstra and Associates, and an ASQ Fellow. She believes that the use of systematic approaches (such as Baldrige) and continuous improvement strategies will improve student success at our schools and colleges.   She can be reached at