Mike Rose: “How do we begin to bridge the gulf between the poor and the rest of society?”

This blog will be on vacation for this holiday week.  There will be a new post next Monday, December 1.

During this week of Thanksgiving, I urge you to read and reflect on a new piece recently posted by Mike Rose, an education writer for whom I am thankful.  Rose is a professor in the graduate school of education at UCLA.  He is also the author of some wonderful books that include—on the subject of teaching and education—Lives On the Boundary, Possible Lives, Why School?, and Back to School.

Rose has recently posted an interview from the fall, 2014 issue of The Hedgehog Review, a publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  Rose’s topic: Seeing the Invisible Poor. The interview explores the issues in a new 12th chapter, “The Inner Life of the Poor,” that Rose added to the revised and expanded 2014 edition of his classic, Why School?.

Here is a taste of what Rose tells The Hedgehog Review:

“There are at least forty-five million people in the United States living at or below the poverty line.  But they are close to absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the socioeconomic status index—or as a negative generalization…  Neither the abstractions nor the generalizations give us actual people trying to live their lives as best they can.”

“I think our separation, our increasing economic segregation, contributes…. With segregation comes ignorance and apprehension.  Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others.  If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate.  And it’s from those attributions we develop both our personal and public-policy responses to poverty.”

“Poverty represents a society’s moral and civic failure.  It also constricts our collective intelligence and creativity as so many people’s potential is squelched.  Thank goodness the notion of an ‘opportunity gap’ is finally making its way into public discussion.”

As always, Mike Rose is grounded and thoughtful.  Take a moment during this busy holiday week to read and think about his post, Seeing the Invisible Poor.

Good wishes for Thanksgiving!

Reports Add Up to Show Charter Fraud, Charter Failure, and Incapacity to Realize What Was Promised

In a new blog post Gene V. Glass, who, earlier this year with David Berliner published the excellent 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, recently posted, Are Charter Schools Greenhouses for Innovation and Creativity?  Glass declares: “The rationale for the charter school movement went something like this: ‘Public education is being crushed by bureaucratic regulation and strangled by teacher unions.  There is no room left for creative innovation; and tired, old traditional educators have run out of energy and ideas.  Let free choice reign!’ It sounded good, especially to people who were clueless about how schools actually run.  How have things actually worked out?  What new, revolutionary ideas have come out of the charter school movement that can teach us all about how to better educate the nation’s children?”  Glass describes the conclusion in his and Berliner’s new book: “that in our opinion the vast majority of charter schools were underperforming traditional K-12 public schools and that the charter school industry was shot through with fraud and mismanagement.”  You’ll have to check out his blog post to read the story of his confrontation with two young charter teachers who recently tried to prove to him that their school was more innovative than the surrounding public school district only to learn that the International Baccalaureate program their charter had just launched was introduced ten years ago and continues to be offered in the public schools.  Berliner’s critique of charters comes among a recent rash of news reports about the woes of the charter sector.

This blog just covered Robin Lake’s despairing critique of the charter school catastrophe in Detroit.  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…’”  Lake is the executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education which has made the promotion of “portfolio school reform” (in which the portfolio contains a mix of public and charter schools from which parents can choose) its primary mission.  Her recent piece  suggests that she, a central promoter of charter schools, has no idea how to rein in school choice gone wild in Detroit.

Like Michigan, Texas is struggling to regulate the quality of its charter schools. The NY Times reports that one charter school district, the Honors Academy Charter chain, is currently operating seven schools even though Honors Academy Charters were formally closed under a 2013 law due to poor performance.  “Well into the new school year, all seven Honors Academy schools, which enroll a total of almost 700 students in Central Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, are still open,” despite that the district has lost its contract and its accreditation.  Although, “The state ordered the charter operator to turn over student records and its remaining state funds, and to find alternatives for its students,” “Honors Academy officials… decided to open their doors anyway.  They have argued that the provision forcing closure is unconstitutional.” Costs are being covered by $3.5 million left over from last year, most of it revenue from the state.   According to state officials, because the schools are now unaccredited, students attending Honors Academy schools will be unable to transfer coursework.  Parents interviewed by the reporter in the parking lot were unaware that the school had lost its charter to operate.

What is happening in North Carolina may not be illegal, but it ought to be. In his column Taking Note, PBS education correspondent John Merrow recently skewered Baker Mitchell, the North Carolina “businessman who has figured out a completely legal way to extract millions of dollars from North Carolina in payment for his public charter schools… Even though none of his publicly-funded schools is set up to run ‘for profit,’ about $19,000,000 of the $55,000,000 he has received in public funds has gone to his own for-profit businesses, which manage many aspects of the schools.”  This blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools here.

Mark Weber, writing for New Jersey Spotlight, echoes Gene Glass’s critique that charter schools have never as a sector fulfilled what was promised.  Weber co-authored a recent report from Rutgers University that used readily available data from the state to demonstrate that charter schools segregate students. (This blog covered the Rutgers report here.)  In his short review for New Jersey Spotlight, Weber concludes: “On average, charters educate proportionately fewer students in economic disadvantage… than do the district schools in their communities.  Charters also educate fewer students with special education needs; further the students with those needs that charters do educate tend to have less costly disabilities.  In addition, the sector enrolls very few students who are English language learners.”  “‘Choice’ in schooling will likely lead to what we found in our report: the concentration of economically disadvantaged, special education, and Limited English Proficient students within district schools…  I see three core challenges in New Jersey’s urban schools: segregation, inadequate school funding, and child poverty.  None of these challenges will be solved by the expansion of charter schools.”

School Districts, Parents, and NAACP File Lawsuit in Pennsylvania to Remedy Deficient School Funding

The financial crisis in the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is well known to readers of this blog.  A post in early October covered the state appointed School Reform Commission’s cancellation of the teachers’ contract to save money on the health plan (along with a review of cuts to Pennsylvania’s state’s school funding that have crippled the school district over time).  Another post after election day attributed Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s defeat in his bid for reelection to long-standing failure across the state to support public education.

But the election of a new governor will not directly address the problems of the state’s poorest school districts.  To secure some relief, on November 10, plaintiffs from across the state filed a major lawsuit charging that Pennsylvania’s school funding violates not only the education clause but also the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania describes the plaintiffs  as representing “the interests of children from across the state including those in rural, urban, and suburban areas.” Plaintiffs are William Penn School District, Panther Valley School District, School District of Lancaster, Greater Johnstown School District, Wilkes-Barre Area School District, Shenandoah Valley School District, seven parent plaintiffs on behalf of children enrolled in one of these districts or the School District of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. Legal representation will be from the Education Law Center-Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

An update from attorney Molly Hunter (at the Education Law Center in New Jersey) traces the history behind the new Pennsylvania lawsuit: “The commonwealth has known for nearly a decade that Pennsylvania’s schools are badly underfunded.  In 2006, the State Board of Education conducted a comprehensive statewide costing-out study to determine the ‘basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the State’s academic standards and assessments.’ The study concluded that 95% of the Commonwealth’s school districts required additional funding, totaling $4.4 billion.  In response, the General Assembly approved a bill that established funding targets for each school district and a formula for distributing education funds in a manner that ensured all students would have the resources necessary to meet state academic standards. Beginning in 2011, however, state officials abandoned the funding formula, reduced funding to districts by more than $860 million, and passed legislation to prevent local communities from increasing local funding… Districts across the state are unable to provide students with the basic elements of a quality education, including sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and staff, appropriate class sizes, suitable facilities, and up-to-date text books and technology.  Plaintiff school districts, the districts that individual plaintiffs attend, as well as many other districts across the commonwealth, are drastically underfunded—some by more than $4,000 per student per school year.”  Hunter explains further that the state has established basic academic standards, but 300,000 of Pennsylvania’s 875,000 students could not pass the tests based on the standards. “Thus, by the Commonwealth’s own standards, more than one-third of all Pennsylvania’s children are receiving an inadequate education ….”

In the lawsuit’s Introductory Statement, plaintiffs declare, “Respondents have violated Article III, Section 14, of the Pennsylvania Constitution (the ‘Education Clause’), which requires the General Assembly to ‘provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.’ They have also violated Article III, section 32 (the ‘Equal Protection Clause’), which requires Respondents to finance the commonwealth’s public education system in a manner that does not irrationally discriminate against a class of children.”  Hunter explains that this second, equal protection cause of action in the lawsuit derives from Pennsylvania’s policies that have discriminated against children in poverty: “Per-pupil spending on education ranges from as little as $9,800 per student in school districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in districts with high property values and incomes.”

Named defendants, according to the Philadelphia School Notebook, are Governor Tom Corbett, Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, members of the State Board of Education, State Senate President Pro-Tem Joe Scarnati, and House Speaker Sam Smith.  The new governor, Tom Wolf, and his education secretary will become defendants when they take office.

Philanthropy Stifles Democracy

While many readers of this blog very likely read Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System all the way through, including the tenth chapter on “The Billionaire Boys’ Club,” I suspect most of us struggle to unlearn many of our beliefs about philanthropy.  We may work for organizations that ask us to write grant proposals to underwrite the projects our own organizations imagine would serve our communities or our particular constituents.  As supplicants we continue to believe that foundations are responsive to the needs identified independently by communities outside their own walls. We continue to imagine that if we define our agency’s needs clearly enough and describe our plans to address those needs, we’ll be able to secure funding that will enable our organization or agency to do good work.  The truth is that foundations increasingly fund projects they have identified and sometimes even projects they have themselves created to further their own predetermined goals.

There has been a tectonic shift in philanthropic giving, and, writes David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, “Look at nearly any sector of U.S. society, and you’ll find private funders wielding growing power.  Most dramatic has been the reshaping of public education by philanthropists like Gates and the Waltons, but the footprint of private money has also grown when it comes to healthcare, the environment, the economy, social policy, science, and the arts.  Whether you agree or disagree with the specific views pushed by private funders, you’ve got to be disturbed by the growing army of hands-on mega donors and foundations that seems to get more clever every year about converting all their money into societal influence. Love it or hate it, the Common Core is a great example: In effect, private funders are helping determine how tens of millions of kids will be educated for years to come.  And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution! Inevitably, the upshot of all this is a weaker voice for ordinary folks over the direction of American life.”

Callahan directs us to Democracy and the Donor Class, published in the journal Democracy and written by Gara LaMarche, President of the Democracy Alliance, and an insider who has overseen giving by a number of progressive foundations.  He challenges: “I do wonder… about my progressive friends.  They believe in a strong government, in a fair tax system, in a robust social-welfare system, and in a vibrant democracy where all voices count equally.  Why are they not more concerned about the undemocratic and largely unaccountable nature of philanthropy? Why are we—since I too have failed for years to ask these big questions—hypersensitive to the dangers of big money in politics, and the way it perpetuates advantage and inequality, but blind, it seems, to the dangers of big philanthropy in the public sphere?”

LaMarche recounts the history of the Gates Foundation’s enormous influence to drive school districts all over the country to break up their high schools into “small schools” only to have Bill Gates, in his 2009 annual letter, acknowledge that, “Many of the small schools we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.”  LaMarche admits his own bias: “You might suggest, after reading for the last few minutes, that I raise these issues because I am not a fan of the particular policies being espoused.  Indeed, in these cases, I’m not.  The dominant wave of education reform is much too top-down for me, generally heedless of the voices and perspectives of teachers, parents, and students and the communities in which they live.  But in fairness, I should say that the same big questions apply to large foundations interventions for policies I favor, like George Soros’s on drug-policy reform, or Atlantic Philanthropies’ on health care, to name two in which I had a personal role.”

LaMarche laments the decline in press coverage that might help citizens better understand the growing and, he believes, dangerous power of private philanthropy: “As it happens, the period of tremendous growth in the philanthropic sector—particularly the rise of a mega-foundation like Gates, which can by itself steer policy on education reform or global health—has coincided with a significant decline in the resources devoted to investigative journalism… As philanthropy’s power has grown, independent scrutiny of it has waned.”

Newark Schools Tragedy Surfaces and Is Quickly Suppressed at D.C. Luncheon

Lindsey Layton reports for the Washington Post that last week, Cami Anderson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s overseer school superintendent in Newark, was invited to Washington, D.C. to present a luncheon address at the far-right American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  When the folks at AEI discovered that many of those who had apparently properly registered and paid to be at the event were protesters bused from Newark, AEI immediately cancelled the public speech and moved Cami Anderson to a room upstairs to deliver a private address via video “for media only.”  Members of the audience were outraged.  “‘I feel ostracized!’ screamed Tanaisa Brown, a 16-year-old high school junior, as the lights in the room were turned off and the crowd was asked to leave.  In the dark, several kept chanting ‘Stop One Newark!’ while one repeatedly blew a whistle.”

You can check out this blog’s coverage of the recent tragic imposition on the citizens of Newark of the “One Newark” school choice plan here and here.  Newark has been under state control for twenty years, and while there is an elected school board, its members have neither the power to choose the school superintendent nor to set school policy.  Governor Chris Christie is notorious for his statement, “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

Layton reports the event last week at AEI as news.  On his blog, Rick Hess, who directs education policy for AEI, tries to explain away the embarassing afternoon.  He writes that he had indirectly criticized some of Anderson’s policies and he wanted to give his old friend a chance to tell her side of the story: “I was indirectly critical of some of what Newark has been doing.  Anderson, a friend who has been superintendent of New Jersey’s largest school system since 2011, argued that my depiction of Newark was unfair and inaccurate… So I invited her to come down to AEI, offer her perspective and some of the results from Newark, and talk about the lessons being learned.”  Hess and AEI have been scathingly criticized for their treatment of Newark’s citizens who felt compelled to travel all the way to the nation’s capital to find a way to speak directly to their school superintendent.  She has been unwilling even to attend public school board meetings since last January.  Bob Braun, former Newark Star-Ledger reporter, now blogger, is outraged.

Perhaps most moving is the analysis of Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school music teacher and Ph.D. candidate in policy and school finance at Rutgers, who blogs as Jersey Jazzman.  He writes, “Repeatedly, Anderson contends that her critics are quite small in number and that there are many more people who support her and One Newark than reality might suggest.  Let’s take a moment, then to review who is in this ‘small group’ that doesn’t support Anderson or her ‘reforms':

  • Mayor Ras Baraka, who was elected in a race that became largely a referendum on Anderson.
  • His opponent, Shavar Jeffries, who lost because, even though he criticized Anderson, he didn’t go as far as Baraka by calling for her removal.
  • The Newark City Council, which called for a moratorium on all of Anderson’s initiatives.
  • The Newark School Board, which, though powerless to remove her… voted “no confidence” in Anderson’s leadership and has tried to freeze her pay.
  • The students of Newark’s schools, who have walked out repeatedly to protest her actions.
  • Parents who have filed a civil rights lawsuit, alleging One Newark is “de facto racial segregation.” (It is.)
  • The teachers union, which claims Anderson has repeatedly refused to follow through on the provisions of the contract she negotiated.
  • 77 of Newark’s religious leaders, who have said One Newark could be “catastrophic” and must not be implemented.” Weber quotes from the statement by the city’s religious leaders: There are many well-educated, reasonable minded, and rational individuals, parents, educators and citizens in general in the City of Newark. They all share an intense passion for excellence in education; they have come to feel that their input and voice have been repeatedly ignored. It is unfair to characterize Newarkers opposing the current approach to change as irrational and resistant to change in any case. Many voices of reason have been largely denied meaningful input into the decision-making process.

Describing discontent among citizens in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles, Weber contrasts democratic governance in those cities to the state’s imposition of Anderson’s school choice plan on Newark: “In all of these cases, the citizens of these school districts could use their vote to express their approval or disapproval of the current management of their schools.  But there’s no way any taxpayer in Newark can affect the continuing tenure of Cami Anderson through his or her vote.  The good people of Newark, NJ have no say in how their schools are run; is it any wonder, then, that they must raise their voices to be heard?  Newark has been under state control for two decades.  The voters of Newark roundly rejected Chris Christie twice, and yet he and he alone gets to decide who manages NPS (Newark Public Schools).  There is no plan in place to move the district back to democratic, local control; no one in the state has been held accountable for the failure to return the schools to the people of Newark.”

South Carolina School Funding Case Finally Decided for Plaintiff Schools—After 21 Years

When I served as staff in the justice ministries in the United Church of Christ, we appointed a five-year national task force that met two or three times every year to visit public schools. Mary Grant, a valued member of that task force, had grown up in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and at every meeting she would report on what was happening in the South Carolina school funding case, Abbeville vs. South Carolina.  Mary Grant joined the task force in 2000, after the Abbeville case had already been in South Carolina’s courts for seven years.  She died in February of 2005, just as our task force was concluding its work. The task force’s final report was dedicated to her and her contributions.  Mary Grant committed her life to the struggle for civil rights for poor, black children, and especially to the children living in what has been called South Carolina’s “corridor of shame”—29 rural school districts that filed the original 1993 Abbeville case, districts located along the route of Interstate 95 in the eastern part of the state. Sadly she did not live to see the case resolved last Wednesday in favor of the plaintiff school districts—twenty-one years after the lawsuit was originally filed.

According to Carolyn Click and Dawn Hinshaw, writing for the Myrtle Beach Sun News, the Abbeville lawsuit was filed on November 2, 1993.  The lawsuit was filed on the claim that the 1977 formula the Legislature uses to distribute money for education is unfair to rural and poor schools.  After ten years of motions to dismiss and appeals, on July 28, 2003, attorneys for the plaintiff school districts and the state began oral arguments.  In 2012, Education South Carolina reported:  “After a flurry of motions and filings, the circuit court then held 102 days of trial, starting in July 2003 and ending in December 2004.  It heard 102 witnesses in person or by deposition, which generated a 23,100-page transcript.  Some 4,400 documents were received in evidence.  A year later, state Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper essentially ruled that the state provided a minimally-adequate education to students in the poor districts. But Cooper… required the state to fund early childhood intervention programs to satisfy constitutional requirements under the ‘minimally adequate’ standard.”  (During an earlier phase of the case, in 1999, before remanding the original case to a lower court for reconsideration, the state supreme court had defined a standard for “minimum adequate education” which included the ability to read, write and speak the English language, and the knowledge of mathematics and physical science; a fundamental knowledge of economic, social and political systems and of history and governmental processes; and academic and vocational skills.)

Not satisfied with the 2003 decision, both the plaintiffs and the state filed appeals, and the case landed with the South Carolina Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments beginning on June 25, 2008.

Last Wednesday, November 12, 2014, in a 3-2 split decision, Chief Justice Jean Toal found in favor of the plaintiff school districts.  The legislature is charged with designing a remedy: “The General Assembly is primarily responsible for school finance reform… In light of this sacrosanct principle, we refuse to provide the General Assembly with a specific solution to the constitutional violation.”  However, Justice Toal’s decision retains jurisdiction, which means the Supreme Court will remain involved—to ensure that a remedy is designed.

Justice Toal considers whether changes in funding and educational programs in all the years since the case was filed render the case irrelevant to today’s realities.  Her decision finds that, “South Carolina’s educational funding scheme is a fractured formula denying students in the Plaintiff Districts the constitutionally required opportunity.”  “The measurable inputs and outputs show that the Defendants have failed to provide students in the Plaintiff Districts the requisite constitutional opportunity.  Inadequate transportation fails to convey children to school or home in a manner conducive to even minimal academic achievement.  Students in the Plaintiff Districts receive instruction in many cases from a corps of unprepared teachers.  Students in these districts are grouped by economic class into what amounts to no more than educational ghettos…. Large percentages of the students in the Plaintiff Districts—over half in some instances—are unable to meet minimal benchmarks on standardized tests, but are nonetheless pushed through the system to ‘graduate.’ While the Defendants and the dissent point to the amount of spending in the Plaintiff Districts, this spending fails to provide students with the opportunity to obtain a minimally adequate education.”

Coincidentally, last Thursday, in the same week as the Abbeville Decision was announced, the Rev. John Thomas, retired president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, published his weekly blog, this week on the injustices of inequitably distributed and inadequate school finance. “While the one percent has rebounded in spectacular fashion from the impact of the Great Recession, much of America is still suffering its effects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the funding of our public schools.  A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveals that thirty states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-2015 school year than they did before the recession hit.  In fourteen of those states the reduction in spending per student between 2008-2015, adjusted for inflation, is over 10 percent.”

I am certain that the Rev. Thomas remembers Mary Grant and her commitment to a bright future for the students in South Carolina’s corridor of shame.   The long delayed decision in Abbeville vs. South Carolina and the overall decrease in American funding for public education since 2008 are symptomatic of a deep and very troubling problem in a society whose state school funding formulas continue to ensure that more public money is spent on the education of wealthy children and less on children living in poverty.

For an excellent analysis of this decision, check out Molly Hunter’s update from the Education Law Center.

Charter School Promoters Discover School Choice Catastrophe in Detroit

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.  Here is how the Center describes itself: “CRPE’s research and policy analysis is focused on the complex systemic challenges affecting public education. We develop, test, and support evidence-based solutions to create new possibilities for the parents, educators, and public officials who strive to improve America’s schools… CRPE is based in Seattle and affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell. Our work is funded through private philanthropic dollars, federal grants, and contracts.”  CRPE is the founder of a school reform theory based on the expansion of school choice.  The CRPE web page declares: “In portfolio cities, families have the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.” In other words, CRPE and its “portfolio school reform model” feature school choice for parents as the key to improving urban education in America.  CRPE has endorsed the concept of the growth of charter schools through its Charter-District Collaboration Compact.

It is therefore pretty shocking to see Robin Lake, in the pages of Education Next, condemning school choice as it is operating in Detroit.  Lake and her team from CRPE visited Detroit earlier this year to assess how portfolio school reform has been working.  She first publicly expressed deep concerns in comments reported in a week long, Detroit Free Press expose on the city’s charters.  Earlier this week, an extensive analysis, Fixing Detroit’s Broken School System, to appear in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next, went on-line.  It is a scathing condemnation of unregulated charter expansion in Detroit:

“Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the chidren they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control…'”

Lake and her co-authors paraphrase the critique by a community leader: “Detroit’s marketplace is as unregulated and unmanaged as any in the country, and tilts strongly toward favoring the supply side. It’s like a flea market… anyone can set up a table to sell their magic, and anyone can come shopping and make a deal, but buyer beware.  In Detroit, more parents exercising choice has not resulted in better schools, and more charter schools has not resulted in better choices.”

Lake and her colleagues identify specific problems in today’s Detroit school marketplace.

  • “For parents… a lack of information, confusing paperwork,and transportation gaps all make it hard to find a school that will work for their child.”
  • “With a dwindling student population and an expanding array of education options, Detroit’s schools are in an all-out battle for students… Some estimate there are currently 20,000 to 30,000 more seats than students in the city’s traditional and charter schools.”
  • “Poor performance plagues schools in both DPS and the city’s large charter sector.”
  • “Parents with the least education are much less likely than parents with college degrees to say their child is in a school that was their first or second choice…”
  • “The proportion of IEP-eligible students in DPS is growing rapidly in large part because a number of Detroit charter schools simply don’t offer many special-education supports.”

However, Lake and her colleagues do not suggest that school choice be eliminated in Detroit.  They advocate that thoughtful community activists and parents should engage in “strong civic leadership” and create “a plan for investment and action, and creative problem solving.  It will need to be strategic about what’s required to solve these complex problems, but also opportunistic about when and how they are solved.”   Advocates will need to “address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools,” “develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector,” help “parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability,” “double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers (Teach for America is the example provided.), engage leaders “like the mayor and local developers,” and “develop a plan to replace DPS (Detroit Public Schools) with a community ‘portfolio manager’ board and superintendent who will see their role as overseeing a citywide system of high-quality schools rather than operating schools directly.  This would likely mean sharing district facilities and special education services with charter schools, and coordinated information and enrollment systems.”

The conclusion here is troubling:  “Given that there seems to be little appetite from the state legislature and governor for legislative action on these fronts, much of these efforts have to be driven by local leaders.”  District leaders, charter authorizers, and school association leaders should collaborate and “take a stand for quality.”  A nonprofit agency “with sufficient funding and authority to be the citywide coordinating body,” should coordinate all the fragmented pieces around facilities, services for family, transportation, enrollment, and parent information.”

Doesn’t this all sound nice!  I think the problem is that money and power politics have affected Michigan’s legislature to ensure there is little oversight of a marketplace where a lot of money is to be made.  Michigan is packed with for-profit charter schools.  And I know that well-intentioned not-for-profit advocacy agencies rarely have the clout or capacity to gain control of a maelstrom like what is described as the flea-market education sector in Detroit.  In places with democratically elected school boards, there is a public forum where consensus can sometimes be developed and formal policies passed and implemented—usually through a long and messy process—to counter powerful business interests.  To imagine that good people can come together on their own in community groups and non-profits to retake control of a huge city school district—especially on top of the overwhelming economic collapse of the region and bankruptcy of the city—is dreaming.