Don’t be fooled. I’m a mother of eight living in Detroit, the city where DeVos’s ideas about education have played out for 20 years. Her push for charter schools without any accountability exposed my children and their classmates to chaos and unacceptable classroom conditions. They are working to reach their potential, but it’s no thanks to her.
When my daughter Virkyla was in the ninth grade and my son Virgil in the eighth grade, I sent them to a for-profit charter school with a performing arts theme. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity for them to study music and art.
But that “choice” meant dragging my kids out of bed at 5 a.m. each morning and paying to put them on the city bus. The bus could be an hour, even two hours late, but the school would lock its doors 45 minutes after the opening bell. If my kids were late, the school would make them go home and miss the entire school day.
I later realized that it’s not an accident that charter schools don’t offer buses, or that many are downtown, far from the neighborhoods where families like ours live. These schools don’t want low-income kids like mine.
I later realized that it’s not an accident that charter schools don’t offer buses, or that many are downtown, far from the neighborhoods where families like ours live.
Worse, school conditions were terrible. There were buckets to collect rain and falling debris. My kids would freeze in the winter thanks to inadequate heat, yet they’d sweat in the summer without proper air conditioning because students weren’t permitted to remove their blazers.
Only a few years earlier, we’d been homeless. Eventually, I couldn’t afford $30 a month in bus fare. Virkyla switched to a neighborhood public school, while Virgil stayed at the charter for another year.
In August 2015, two weeks before school started, I got a letter telling me that Virgil’s school was closing. No explanation, no decent warning. Virgil is a straight-A student who wants to be an engineer. I tried to get him into one of the city’s best charter schools. It demanded a recommendation, an essay, old test scores. We just couldn’t wrangle the test scores from the school that just shut down. After Virgil sat at home two weeks into the school year, I gave up and put him in the neighborhood public school.
Charters are supposed to be first-come, first-serve. But a lot of them make similar demands. Again, to keep out families like mine.
A couple months later, Virkyla, then a senior, found out that her new school wouldn’t let her graduate without a transcript from her ninth grade year, the year she attended the now closed-down charter school. The company that ran the closed high school still had a lower school, but they kept giving me the run around. Activists from a grassroots group had to badger the “authorizer,” the university that allowed this lousy school to operate in the first place.
It wasn’t until March that we finally got that transcript. Can you imagine what it does to a girl’s senior year to be told you need to redo ninth grade? She was about to drop out. She wants to be a physical therapist, but she’s afraid to put herself out there and apply to college.
Through this experience, I learned that Michigan’s authorizers have no obligation to demand any basic level of quality from the charter schools they supposedly oversee. That our schools are known as the Wild West. And that Betsy DeVos is the one who “devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West,” as one expert wrote.
It’s the system DeVos demanded when she promoted charter schools with no oversight. And when there was a bipartisan coalition last year pushing for some oversight through a Detroit Education Commission, the DeVos family defeated the effort with $1.45 million in donations.
My family isn’t done with DeVos’s chaos, either. The law that passed without the oversight commission did call for closing some of the worst schools. It has big loopholes for failing charter schools to stay open. But it’s threatening the two public schools that my 10-, 11-, and 13-year-olds go to.
I’m not happy that they go to failing schools. But if these schools close, our neighborhood will become another Detroit school desert.
No one wants their child to grow up in the Wild West. Betsy DeVos is the wrong choice for education secretary.
Michele Phillips and her family live in Detroit, Michigan.