National News Site Attacks DeVos By Citing Questionable School Choice 'Ally'

Claims state school board head is pro-charter is like calling 'Frosty the Snowman a supporter of global warming'

John Austin

A recent story on the Politico news site criticized the role played by U.S. secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos in the growth of charter schools in Michigan.

The story raised some eyebrows among charter school proponents with its claim that John Austin, the president of the Michigan State Board of Education, is a supporter of school choice. Austin’s bid for another term on the board was defeated by statewide voters on Nov. 8.

Politico featured Austin in its story when it wrote:

The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.

“The bottom line should be, ‘Are kids achieving better or worse because of this expansion of choice?’” said Michigan State Board of Education President John Austin, a DeVos critic who also describes himself as a strong charter-school supporter. “It’s destroying learning outcomes ... and the DeVoses were a principal agent of that.”

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In a 2014 email to Michigan Capitol Confidential, Austin also claimed to be a supporter of school choice.

Austin also strongly objected to a 2014 Michigan Capitol Confidential headline that characterized his views as follows: “State Board Prez Fights Parental Choice.”

Austin laid out his views on school choice in 2014 in a nearly 500 word email. (Click here to read the entire email.)

But Austin's public comments about charter schools and school choice have been far from supportive.

The liberal Eclectablog reported Austin’s response to a state senator in 2013:

"But the Senator needs to acknowledge that a major contributor to the financial death spiral of so many school districts is Michigan’s new school and charter school expansion policy. When the legislature eliminated the cap on new university charters and expanded dramatically the number of new untested on-line school offerings in Michigan, Senator Pavlov and his colleagues purposefully rejected the State Board’s recommendations to ensure that any new schools deliver high-quality education. As a result, as reported by respected non-partisan education reform groups like Education Trust Midwest: Michigan is seeing a fast growth in charters and new schools that deliver poor education. As Ed Trust Director Amber Arrellano said: ‘Some of the worst operators in the state are the ones that are growing the fastest.’"

The Midland Daily News reported in March that Austin alleged that charter school chaos and a lack of their accountability explained many of the problems facing education in Michigan.

The Detroit Free Press reported in October that Austin “said he believes the state needs to reign in the spread of charter schools.” It quoted him as saying the state needed to stop a “for-profit education marketplace that is not educating kids and driving Michigan's learning performance downward.”

Austin also appears unfriendly to Michigan’s other form of public school choice, which allows parents to send their children to an adjacent school district if it has space. A Bridge Magazine report in April quoted him as saying, “Unrestrained choice is an unmitigated disaster for Michigan. Cross-district choice is less about learning than about competing for students and money.”

One of the most supportive voices on charter schools in Michigan scoffs at the notion that Austin is an ally.

“Calling John Austin a supporter of school choice is like calling Frosty the Snowman a supporter of global warming,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, in an email. “No single person has done more to spread misinformation and outright falsehoods about Michigan’s charter schools than John Austin. The school choice movement won’t miss him on the State Board of Education.”

The Politico article also failed to mention that Austin is a Democrat. That political party has been opposed to charter schools, which are rarely unionized. Unions in Michigan overwhelmingly support Democrats.

That state Democratic Party has tried unsuccessfully to suppress charters in Michigan, and in some instances, even ban them through legislation.

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