How School Choice in Michigan Accelerates Student Mobility, Stresses Educators, and Undermines Education

Yesterday this blog examined how two school choice policies in Michigan—the rapid expansion of charter school choice and cross-district open enrollment that allows students to leave their school district and enroll in a nearby school district—are together undermining the fiscal viability of Michigan’s public school districts. Here, thanks to a collaboration between Chalkbeat, Bridge Magazine, and the Detroit Free Press is the story of how these very same policies are undermining teaching and learning in the Detroit Public Schools.

Reporters Erin Einhorn and Chastity Pratt Dawsey describe how cross-district and charter school choice are accelerating student churn as children change schools again and again.  In Detroit, the subject of the article, student mobility is also exacerbated by homelessness and foreclosure and other challenges posed by extreme poverty across the school population. But there is an additional factor: Detroit is part of a network of so-called “portfolio school districts” which are managed as though they are part of a business portfolio—establish choice; then phase out the bad investments and try something new and let families enforce accountability as they move with their feet.  According to the new report on student mobility in Detroit, school choice has resulted over the years in “nearly 200 school closures” as students tried out other possibilities.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit’s school superintendent, explains: “You can’t create trust between a student and parent and a school when you have this constant disruption… It’s hard to hold teachers accountable to performance if children are not consistently in their classrooms. We are going to set teachers, schools, and principals up for failure if we don’t acknowledge that.”

Einhorn and Dawsey describe a very complicated problem: “In Detroit, there are many reasons why schools are in crisis. There are overcrowded classrooms and buildings in poor condition. There are children experiencing trauma at home unable to find a quiet place—or a reason—to do their homework.  But spend time in almost any Detroit school, and educators will tell you that perhaps the single most significant factor standing in the way of children’s success is this: Students don’t stay…  Here, decades of evictions, foreclosures, and financial distress have ravaged communities and destabilized housing.  Nearly 200 school closures have distanced families from what used to be neighborhood schools.  And state policies, engineered in part by Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary, have created one of the most robust systems of school choice in the nation. The effect: A recent analysis by two Wayne State University professors found that roughly one in three elementary school students changes schools every year—often in the middle of the school year… When the Wayne State professors, Sarah Winchell Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, analyzed data from Detroit district and charter schools in the 2015-16 school year, they found that nearly 60 percent of students who live in Detroit—almost 50,000 children—were enrolled in two or more Detroit schools that year… That includes nearly 7,000 children who were enrolled in three schools that year and about 900 children who were enrolled in four or more schools in a single year.”

The reporters continue: “Michigan’s educational system allows for an unlimited number of charter schools, and lets families cross city lines to enroll in neighboring districts.  The system encourages families to shop around for the right choice. But in a city where most schools are struggling, parents wanting the best for their child might not be happy with the first, second, or third school they try. They might keep searching, and might end up causing serious harm.”

Profiling students graduating from eighth grade at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, the reporters share students’ stories of feeling displaced and trying to fit in. They also share the frustrations of teachers who too often discover a new child in class, someone who arrived without notice and without records.  A science teacher meets a student at the door at the end of a class to inquire whether the student is visiting from another class: “No, Gabrielle answered, “I’m new.”  “Oh,” her teacher said. “Welcome.”

Just as students arrive unannounced, “At the same time, other students disappear. They’re in class one day, raising their hands to ask a question or volunteering to solve a math problem. The next day they’re gone, a single-day absence that soon turns to weeks. Staff often don’t know where they’ve gone until another school calls for their records.”

It is not surprising that, “When a new student transfers into the school, paperwork documenting student disabilities and spelling out therapies and support for those children is supposed to come with them. The child’s former school, when requested, is supposed to send over transcripts, test scores, and other paperwork. But teachers say it can take weeks to get a student’s transcript from another school, even from other schools in the same district. The state education department is developing a centralized data system that, in the next few years, will enable schools to quickly access the records of new students. But for now, schools must make the request, then hope for a timely response.  If it takes too long, the new teacher might never know whether the child who just arrived had behavioral problems in her last school, or if his last teacher thought he might need glasses.”

“Ads for online schools, charter schools, and suburban schools”  on the radio “lure families out of the Detroit school system.” The tragedy, as the reporters explain, is that, “Student transience affects nearly every school in Detroit.”

Bethune Elementary-Middle School’s principal Alisanda Woods perfectly understands the problem and grasps, as well, how little she can do to support the teachers and the children: “Some of these kids have a lot of problems that nobody’s addressing, and they’re coming in and a lot of times they’re unstable… Our teachers will receive these children and work with them from the time they walk through the door until the time they leave… But then new students arrive and we have to start all over again.”

Please read this fine reporting: In Detroit, Students Move from School to School at Dizzying Pace.