Time for Detroit charter schools to lead—not just fight to protect turf
Dan Quisenberry’s recent piece in Fordham’s Gadfly suggested that newly enacted legislation in Michigan represents a "victory for charter quality in Detroit.” Dan is great, and it’s true that the legislation will likely help a little with charter quality. But given the dire need to fix Detroit’s fundamentally broken public school system, his title really should have read “Victory for the charter school lobby.”
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But the fact is the state has offered the beleaguered residents of the Motor City the education equivalent of a scooter when what they need is Range Rover. For a while, politicians in Lansing were weighing serious reform ideas to address the dismal financial and academic reality of Detroit’s public schools (charter and district alike). But those proposals made charter schools nervous.
The earlier bill would have created a Detroit Education Commission (DEC), overseen by the mayor, to close or turn around low-performing district and charter schools, allocate buildings, and manage the most chaotic problems around facilities and enrollment. It would have gone a long way toward addressing local problems by creating local solutions and requiring district-charter coordination to address the most pressing pain points for families. The legislation would have bailed out DPS financially and returned school board control to voters (two things the Detroit community has been demanding), but it also would have finally done something to address the chaotic and dismal realities that Detroit parents face:
- National Assessment for Educational Progress scores for Detroit Public Schools (DPS) students have been abominably low for decades. In 2013, just 4 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math; just 7 percent were proficient in reading.
- District enrollment has fallen from nearly 140,000 students in 2006 to under fifty thousand in 2013. A toxic combination of legacy debt and weak leadership has plagued the district and led to Third World school conditions. The board has operated under a state-run emergency manager for years, yet it continues to teeter on the brink of financial and academic bankruptcy.
- Detroit’s charter schools, which represent about half of the city’s public schools, outperform their district counterparts. But given the extremely low bar, that is not difficult. Detroit’s charter schools also serve smaller proportions of special education and other high-needs students (18 percent of DPS students are identified as needing special education versus 10 percent of charter school students).
- Due to a lack of coordination among the dozen charter authorizers that approve new charter schools—most of which are located outside Detroit—some neighborhoods are flooded with under-enrolled schools that perform up to their potential, while other neighborhoods have only weak schools operated by DPS. Inadequate transportation options make it nearly impossible for many families to take advantage of choice. Parents report confusion and distress over the state of the schools and their ability to navigate their choices.
- Outsider action over the years by state-controlled boards, emergency managers, and non-Detroit charter authorizers has failed to address quality or equity; it has also created intense hostilities in a community that is now (understandably) demanding control of its schools.
The legislature snubbed this proposal, however, and chose instead to throw a bucket of water on a burning building.
In the bill just passed, lawmakers give a nod to bare-bones accountability measures for charter schools. The lowest-performing schools are to be closed by a state office, and authorizers will have to have pass basic accreditation standards. Still, charter and district schools both escape serious oversight and coordination. The district gets a financial lifeline and moves back under the control of a locally elected board. Yet there is no viable plan for turning the district around academically. The big problem in Detroit remains: Nobody—not the remaining school district, not the charters, not the state—is responsible for ensuring that every child can attend a good school.
Detroit’s problems are far more profound than can be fixed by closing the lowest-performing schools. The chaos that families experience when enrolling their children in school requires collective action among charter authorizers and district leaders; this can only come about if it is forced by the state. Parents whose children have special needs essentially have no choices at all.
No one really believes the district is poised to improve. It is more likely that equity issues will continue to fester. Note the contrast: In cities like New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Denver, Boston, and Chicago, charters are stepping up to help make parental choice work better, to take responsibility for serving students with severe (and often costly) special needs, and even to help improve district schools. Detroit’s charter schools have hunkered down instead, protecting their own turf and shouting, “It’s not my fault!”
But the facts about Detroit’s public schools are too stark for charter and district schools to operate in isolation. I have never seen a district and charter system as dysfunctional and chaotic as Detroit’s. It is a national embarrassment to have public schools that plainly fail to educate a city’s children—in this case children who are mostly poor and black.
Now that they have successfully fended off regulation by the mayor, Detroit charters can prove that they stand for quality and equity on behalf of students. They can acknowledge that while they didn’t cause most of the problems in Detroit schools, they are uniquely positioned to solve them. Now that they have scored a victory in the legislature, they can prove they stand for quality by:
- Working to elect excellent leaders to the Detroit school board;
- Insisting that the state follow through on necessary closures of failing schools; and
- Offering to create new schools in the neighborhoods that need them most, serve more students with disabilities, and help grow the number of high-quality schools in the city, whether charter- or district-run.
Michigan’s school choice sector won its fight for autonomy this legislative session. It’s now time to prove charter operators will fight for kids too.
This commentary was first published by the Fordham Institute.