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.