When United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos criticized the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) last week for lacking accessible school choice options, local educators were as surprised as they were concerned.

Confirmed in February as President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Education, DeVos made her remarks about the county’s public schools before the Brookings Institution, during a speech highlighting results of the 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI). ECCI is an annual report that evaluates and ranks “the conditions for K-12 school choice” among the country’s largest public school districts.

With nearly 60,000 students enrolled, MCPSS is the largest school district in Alabama and the only school district in the state included in the report. However, the ECCI has routinely ranked MCPSS among the bottom of larger school districts across the country and this year ranked the district dead last.

While DeVos acknowledged some “nominal” options offered to MCPSS students and parents, she singled out the district for finding itself ranked 112th out of 112 school systems.

United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“I’m glad [the ECCI] has highlighted such districts as Mobile, Alabama, that nominally provide choice but don’t give parents adequate tools to take advantage of those programs,” DeVos said. “As a parent, you can’t take advantage of a choice you don’t know exists.”

In other words, DeVos was more critical of the way MCPSS gets the word out about its educational options than she was of the district’s programs themselves. She also said MCPSS and the 26 other districts receiving an “F” rating should “find better ways” of getting citizens the information they need to make choices about their children’s education.

However, according to MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek, the Brookings Institution’s report makes most of its determinations based on information found online. She pointed out MCPSS was never contacted about the ECCI, and officials had “no knowledge of the report” until DeVos’ comments started generating buzz locally.

“From what I can discern, this is an audit they do utilizing websites of school districts across the country, and of course, we’ve been working with our website this year and are continuing to refine it,” Peek told Lagniappe. “Still, I was really surprised the U.S. Secretary of Education would make the comments she did based on what I understand to be a website review.”

With 13 points of focus, the ECCI looks at whether a school district offers options such as magnet programs, private school vouchers, tax credit scholarships, alternative schools, charter programs and virtual schools. Yet, as Peek pointed out, MCPSS has some version of nearly all of those, with the ones not offered being largely prohibited by state law.

Alabama also didn’t pass legislation authorizing charter school programs until 2015, and in fact, the state’s first program is scheduled to be opened by the Mobile Area Education Foundation later this year — an effort Peek said MCPSS is “working to be a partner in.”

Logan Searcy, who works with the Alabama Charter School Commission on behalf of the Alabama State Department of Education, said it was odd DeVos choose to single out Mobile because the system offers several school choice options.

“To me, it was somewhat ironic she chose to highlight Mobile,” Searcy said. “They’ve been most supportive of school choice, and Martha Peek has also been supportive of MAEF in their work to open the state’s first charter school, and I think that should definitely be stated.”

With those factors being considered, Peek urged the Brookings Institution to consider things like “state laws, school demographics and local initiatives” in the future, as opposed to just comparing school districts based on their size alone.

Since 2014, MCPSS has added its seventh magnet program, created the state’s second virtual academy and established signature academy programs at each of its 12 high schools dedicated to a specific curriculum or occupational interest. Students can also transfer to any of those academies regardless of school zone, with the district offering transportation.

Collie Wells, who oversees career technical education and workforce development for ALSDE, said options like that “should certainly be highlighted” in any conversations about school choice.

According to Peek, those are just a few of the ways MCPSS has been “working diligently” to expand its school choice options over the past few years, adding the district already offers “more than any other in the state.” However, she said, that might not be something a person performing an audit would pick up on “just from a website.”

“The report relies heavily on parents having access to information through a website, but that’s not necessarily the case in our area and in Alabama, where not everyone has that access in their homes,” Peek said. “That’s why we do bus tours and host Signature Academy fairs and try to get information out in a lot of different ways rather than just depending on the internet.”

Shortly after DeVos’ remarks, MCPSS extended her office an invitation to visit some of the schools in the local system for a first-hand look at the options available for students and parents. So far, no response from DeVos has been received.

Though Peek said she doesn’t put too much stock in rankings like the ECCI, she does have concerns about the impression those reports could give to someone taking them at face value.

“If people don’t read and understand what the grade means, all they see is an ‘F,’” Peek said. “These lists come and go, but when you have someone saying, ‘Oh well, you know Mobile, Alabama,’ like they’re hoping to light a fire under us, I want to them to come here and see the fire is already burning.”