Bad Chart Thursday: DeVos’s Pyramid Scheme for Education

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared on 60 Minutes earlier this month, in part to plug her latest pyramid scheme: for-profit school choice.

Yet DeVos couldn’t answer basic questions from host Leslie Stahl about how school choice was working for students in Michigan, DeVos’s home state, where she’s successfully lobbied for decades to implement for-profit charter schools with little to no accountability, paid for by per-pupil funding (meaning taxpayer dollars follow individual students to whatever school they go to rather than set funding going to districts).

The next day, on Twitter, DeVos “defended” her poor showing in the interview by sharing two charts that show a decline in average grade 4 test scores among Michigan students compared with the national average over the period DeVos and her counterparts were successfully implementing for-profit school choice.

Devos chart tweet

MI vs. US grade 4 math scores trend line graph

MI vs. US grade 4 reading scores trend line graph

DeVos did not credit the source of the charts (nor include the key explaining the dashed lines as “accommodations not permitted”), but they appear to come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card).

In this case, the charts themselves do not earn a place in Bad Chart Thursday—DeVos’s use of them does.

In her tweet, she explains her intended use of the charts, to show that Michigan, and the United States as a whole, is failing students, as shown by what she refers to as “stagnant” test scores in reading and math. Whether these charts even show this is debatable.

Test scores are a problematic measure of learning, even with context not shown in this chart (such as what tests were used at various times and places, lack of control for factors such as poverty, etc.), and what looks like “stagnation” has more to do with how tests are created (such as by testing potential questions to ensure that only 40–60% of students answer correctly as a way to avoid a test being too easy). Even putting that issue aside, DeVos is using charts that show test scores declining in Michigan after school choice was aggressively implemented to argue for . . . more choice.

The day after DeVos sent that tweet, she defended her defense of her responses on 60 Minutes in a speech to the National PTA: “Michigan hasn’t embraced further reforms and hasn’t yet offered parents robust choice.” She doesn’t define what she means by “robust,” but Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country with among the least oversight, thanks largely to DeVos’s lobbying.

The Michigan legislature has passed nearly everything on DeVos’s wish list, including no caps on the number of charter schools (even as schools operate with thousands of empty seats and the state has little power to shut down even the worst charter schools); school boards chosen by the authorizer (sometimes staffed with management company employees); virtual charter schools (not allowed in many states); and no state standards, oversight, or accountability (a recently passed law does allow the state to close schools performing in the bottom 5% for 3 years and to refuse new charters for three years to authorizers of low-performing schools, but those authorizers can still open new “campuses”).

Michigan voters (not lawmakers) did reject a ballot initiative on vouchers, however, so perhaps that’s what she means by Michigan not having “robust” choice, but the track record for vouchers in the United States is even less compelling than that of charter schools (which have been more successful in states that have accountability, oversight, and nonprofit requirements). The Brookings Institution, for example, reported on declining test scores after vouchers were implemented in DC, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio, with private schools scoring worse than public (although Brookings suggests caution in interpreting these studies because more research is needed, and initial results could change over time).

DeVos did further clarify her “robust choice” comment, according to ABC News:

“States surrounding Michigan offer parents more choices and see improving student achievement,” she argued at a National PTA conference in Arlington, Virginia. “There are some who say that choice takes money away from school buildings, from school systems. But money doesn’t belong to buildings or systems. Taxpayer money belongs to you.”

She’s right that student achievement in surrounding states (such as Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin) is better than in Michigan, but student achievement in nearly every state is better than in Michigan. Those three states do have voucher programs, so that fact combined with her last sentence above strongly suggest that by “robust choice,” she’s referring to vouchers, meaning that she is once again defending her views by pointing to something that undermines them.

Or is she?

Her comment “Taxpayer money belongs to you,” ludicrous on its face (if it belonged to us, tax fraud wouldn’t be criminal), hints at how she actually defines success in education—and it’s not test scores or any measure of student achievement or well-being. Much like Amway, the multi-level marketing company started by her husband’s family, in which those at the top of the pyramid define success not by the quality of the products they sell but by the number of Amway “businesses” funneling money up to the top, DeVos and cronies seem to define success by the number of charter schools funneling money to authorizers and for-profit management companies, regardless of the quality of the product (i.e., education).

Hence her lobbying successfully for the state to allow for-profit schools, no cap on the number of the schools, and no financial or educational oversight that could shut down an income stream, aka charter school (although the legislature has started making lip-service changes). Authorizers get their 3% of taxpayer dollars per school regardless of how well that school serves students and the community.

Amway and other multilevel marketing companies actually sell the “opportunity” to be in business for yourself more than they sell products, an opportunity you pay for by purchasing products up front, not to mention the numerous seminars and similar products Amway tells you to purchase to ensure your success, and the constant pressure to recruit others so that you (and those above you) can make a percentage on the products they purchase to sell, regardless of whether the new salespeople manage to actually sell anything. The products themselves are all but irrelevant.

Similarly, with for-profit school choice, the quality of the product (education) is irrelevant. When education funds are disbursed per pupil, as they are in Michigan, the money follows the student, so the more students a charter school can attract (at the bottom of the pyramid), the more money authorizers and management companies (at the top) can make (and the less money public schools have to educate the children who do not go to a charter school).

Those at the top of the pyramid (authorizers and management companies) make money whether or not the students learn anything, just as those at the top of the Amway sales pyramid make money from those beneath them regardless of whether those beneath them are successful.

Even if a charter school is not able to attract and retain its capacity for students, authorizers and management companies still profit from the taxpayer dollars of the students the school does have as well as potentially profiting from the school’s startup and operating needs. Just as the new Amway salesperson is stuck fronting the costs of the products they hope to sell, charter schools need money for startup and operating costs that exceed (at least initially) what they are likely to receive from per-pupil taxpayer funds. This presents yet another opportunity for authorizers and management companies to profit.

Because of Michigan’s lack of financial oversight for charter schools, including of conflicts of interest, for-profit management companies can profit from inflated real-estate sales; interest on loans to schools; vendor deals with friends, family, and business associates with free rein to inflate costs; and by spending the bare minimum of taxpayer dollars on the schools, pocketing the rest (and claiming that they do not need to be transparent about the “rest” because they are private companies).

For example, two charter schools in Michigan paid millions above market value for their property, purchases from businesses in which the president of the school’s management company, Helicon Associates, had an interest. Another Michigan charter school paid up a million dollars for acres of woods and wetlands that students are not allowed on and that can’t be developed because of a conservation easement. These are just two of many, many examples.

School choice is profitable for some in Michigan regardless of whether individual schools succeed in educating students effectively.

This might be why Betsy DeVos never seems prepared to defend school choice in terms of student achievement, why she would tweet charts that seem to undercut her message. She probably genuinely didn’t even notice that Michigan was performing below the national average in the charts she shared. From her perspective, the charts showed “stagnation” in test scores, which she believes bolsters her case for criticizing US education as a whole as needing change. It doesn’t matter to her whether that change is actually likely to improve students’ education because she knows it will make education profitable regardless of quality.

Another motive, besides profit, for DeVos to focus on criticizing US education as a whole, even when that criticism falls on her school choice efforts in Michigan, is to further the goal of taxpayer-supported religious education, particularly by pushing for vouchers that can be used to attend private, including religious, schools. She’s long been affiliated through her financial support and sometimes membership with various organizations (e.g., the Council of National Policy, the Foundation for Traditional Values, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, etc.) who actively pursue abolishing the federal education system and making Christianity foundational in the classroom.

As Mother Jones reported a year ago,

in a 2001 interview for The Gathering, a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, [Betsy DeVos] and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on giving—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

From this perspective, DeVos’s lack of knowledge about the effects of school choice on student achievement in Michigan, and her tweet’s focus on demonizing public schools, even at the expense of the charter schools she’s championed, make sense as ways to push further toward taxpayer-funded religious education as the “answer” to supposedly failing public schools.

Charter schools take money from public schools, increasing the likelihood that those schools will fail in student achievement, which can lead to a public school being shut down. This in turn expands the market for charter schools, which have more room to fail (and more ability to hide failures) and which are profitable regardless of success in terms of student achievement. Charter school failures also can be used as a reason to push for vouchers to go toward private, including religious, schools as the only option left against a backdrop of “failing” (by design) public schools, including public charters (all while the failing charters continue to make money for authorizers, management companies, and their cronies).

Betsy DeVos has repeatedly shown complete ignorance of the details of education, from how schools operate day-to-day to student needs, civil rights, achievement, learning, and well-being, but only because she’s viewing those details at the bottom of a pyramid far away from where she sits atop. Just as a top-earning Amway salesperson doesn’t care whether those at the bottom of the sales pyramid are successful as long as the money they spend and the people they recruit continue to funnel a percentage to the top, DeVos has no motivation to care about the students, families, and teachers at the bottom of the school choice pyramid. She and her cohorts profit financially regardless, and she profits even more ideologically from school failure.


Featured image by Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons license.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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  1. So the Secretary of Education is an ignoramus. And the Secretary of Defense is offensive. The Secretary of the Treasury is a bank robber (well, a banker and a robber). The Secretary of Agriculture is an herbicidal maniac. The Secretary of Health and Human Services is malignant and inhumane. The Secretary of State is, uh, what’s the opposite of stately? Someone want to help me? I don’t want to google the whole cabinet!
    BTW, welcome back, Melanie :-) I’ve missed you guys.

    1. Berlusconian? Though the centrists are now trying to convince me Five Star Movement’s a leftist party.

      At the same time, there’s more and more Clinton’s cult of personality striking back. Now opposing anything either Clinton did is becoming a dealbreaker, yes, including things like DOMA and the Iraq invasion.

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