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DeVos concedes that Michigan’s schools ‘need to do better’ — and says ‘more options’ are the answer

It’s a question that people across Michigan have asked: If school choice, U.S. Education Secretary DeVos’s focus, is enough to improve schools, why are many schools in the state struggling?

On Sunday evening, the entire country got to see DeVos face that question, during an appearance on 60 Minutes where host Lesley Stahl pressed her on the state’s education track record.

The exchange was one of several in which DeVos seemed to struggle for answers. (The White House is reportedly alarmed.) At one point, she tried to avoid commenting on the state’s schools, saying, “I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”

Here’s the exchange in full:

DeVos: Well, in places where there have been, where there is, a lot of choice that’s been introduced — Florida, for example — the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools, actually, the results get better, as well. Stahl: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state. DeVos: Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here. Stahl: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better? DeVos: I don’t know. Overall, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better. Stahl: The whole state is not doing well. DeVos: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and — Stahl: No, but your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here. DeVos: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them. Stahl: The public schools here are doing worse than they did. DeVos: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.

On Monday, DeVos tweeted that she had shared data with 60 Minutes showing that Michigan’s schools are struggling — and that the data show that “students need more options.”

The state of Michigan’s schools — where students statewide have fallen behind other states on national tests over the last two decades — has been part of the conversation since DeVos nabbed the education secretary nomination in late 2016.

Here’s what we wrote last year when we took on the question of whether DeVos could be blamed for Detroit’s struggling schools:

So what makes Michigan charter school policies so controversial? Michigan has a charter school law that puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open. The state does have the ability to close schools for poor performance, but it generally has not done so. … The set-up has created an environment in which Detroit has more schools than kids — an estimated 30,000 classroom seats sitting empty. That has forced district and charter schools to aggressively compete with each other for students, then slash programs or increase class sizes when too-few kids lead to tighter budgets. Detroit is the foremost example of the adverse consequences of a poorly regulated education market, said Michigan State University professor David Arsen. I say this as an advocate for school choice. Choice is good but … in Detroit you have a system that is chaotic.

In the last year, Michigan toyed with closing an unprecedented number of low-performing schools — but ultimately put the effort on hold.