The unofficial motto of a public charter school co-founded by Betsy DeVos — President-elect Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education — could be “No Pilot Left Behind.”
Nearby a small maintenance hangar that’s part of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, one of the school’s two Cessna 172 airplanes chugs down the tarmac of Gerald R. Ford International Airport. The school is based on the airport’s grounds, just outside Grand Rapids.
Besty DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, led the effort to create this charter high school and got it off the ground — literally — in 2010. They donated the first Cessna. Delta Airlines’ foundation donated the second.
But few other Michigan charters have billionaire founder patrons and A-list connections. The school’s annual fundraising gala has included Apollo 13 astronauts as well as former president George W Bush and other luminaries.
The school’s principal, Patrick Cywayna, says there’s a long waiting list to attend this tuition-free, nonprofit high school. “I think the word choice says it all,” he says. “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.”
“When I came here,” says senior Madelynn Benedict, “it like opened a whole new world for me, and I’ve learned so much.”
The 18-year-old says she switched from an uninspiring public high school in a small town to this aviation-and-STEM themed charter during her sophomore year.
“My parents actually thought I was crazy when I was like, ‘I want to transfer.’ And they’re like, ‘But you’re halfway through your high school career, don’t you want to like stay in your safe area?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I want to go fly.’ “
Today, Benedict and about 600 other students here want to fly or are aiming for careers in aviation or engineering fields. The well-regarded school places a strong emphasis on STEM, aeronautical engineering and robotics.
“To combine aviation with STEM is the perfect storm in a positive way,” says Cwayna. His title is CEO.
Students here can earn their private pilot’s license as part of the regular curriculum. “Not only do they go up with an instructor: Once they get the right grades and the hours, they solo. They get a license, they’re on their own,” Cwayna says.
By the way, the school may help fill a vital need: Industry experts warn of a looming critical shortage of pilots and plane mechanics.
The mantra of opportunity, choice and competition has been the guiding principle for Betsy DeVos in Michigan and nationally. Initiatives she’s backed have included efforts to expand the number charters in the public school system and to limit oversight and regulation of charters. She has also advocated for tuition tax credits and voucher programs that use public money to help students attend private schools. She was a strong supporter of a failed Michigan ballot measure on vouchers for private schools.
Groups she has supported and helped run — including the American Federation for Children — have pushed similar free-market choice ideas.
Another hint at policies DeVos might pursue as Education Secretary comes from the Great Lakes Education Project – which DeVos helped create and, until her nomination, served on its board.
The organization supports full or comprehensive choice options with what’s known as portability’s, says the executive director, Gary Naeyaert. “We want the investment in a child’s education, be they federal or state dollars, we want [that money] to follow that child to the school of their choice whether it’s public or private,” he explains.
Teachers’ unions have long warned that voucher and charter plans take badly needed funds from traditional public schools, and that they can push profit over learning. Some 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools today are for-profit – a far higher percentage than other states.
Michigan embraced charters more than two decades ago with the idea that all public schools would improve if faced with competition, and if parents had more choices. Critics say the results are not good. “Michigan charter schools are viewed as the wild, wild West of charters in the United States,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“You need to have accountability for all, for charters as well as other public schools,” Weingarten says. “Remember, DeVos is a big believer in for-profit education. She’s a big believer in vouchers, which after 25 years have not shown anything like the promise that they were sold about and, indeed, have not helped kids.”
“There’s a common pattern,” says Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University who has long studied charters and choice in Louisiana and nationally. On Michigan’s experiments, he says, DeVos has advocated for ideas that have a poor record. “The best case scenario is that they don’t work. And the worst case scenario is they’re actually worse than the alternatives.”
Harris points to Detroit, where many charters have greatly under-performed. As an economist, Harris says he generally thinks choice and free markets are good things. But he says DeVos’ advocacy record shows she prefers an unbridled approach to choice, with limited or no oversight. He calls such an approach a triumph “of ideology over evidence.”
“Education is probably the best example where you really need to have some external oversight to make sure that the schools are actually enrolling students in a fair way,” Harris says. “That they’re not pushing out students that they don’t want, and making sure that all students are being served.”
On vouchers, Harris points to the data: A large study his research center conducted shows that students who got vouchers in Louisiana’s statewide program saw their test scores drop 8 to 16 percentile points. Michigan doesn’t have vouchers – despite efforts by DeVos to create them.
An Ohio voucher study also showed that student achievement there suffered.
Harris says, combine that voucher research with what he calls Detroit’s bungled experiment with largely unregulated charter schools and the evidence is overwhelming: an unrestrained approach to choice is a recipe for failure.
“It has not worked in Michigan and it hasn’t worked in the other places where she [DeVos] has 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.”
Charters have boosted student achievement among some students in cities including Boston, New York and New Orleans. Harris notes that those cities have robust charter oversight and regulation – unlike Michigan.
Lindsey Smith of Michigan Radio contributed to this report.