Republican Detroit Plan Invests Too Little, Fails to Regulate Out-of-Control Charter Sector

To consider the Detroit Schools “rescue” plan passed by both houses of Michigan’s legislature last week and sent to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature, one can benefit from a review of some background:

  • Michigan is among the 22 states in which the governor and both houses of the legislature are dominated by Republican majorities.
  • According to Gary Miron in a 2013 report for the National Education Policy Center, Michigan is unique among the states in the number of charter schools managed by for-profit Education Management Organizations: “Michigan stands out as an anomaly with 79% of its charter schools operated by for-profit EMOs and another 10 of its charter schools operated by nonprofit EMOs.”
  • Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter Center on Reinventing Public Education, expressed dismay after a trip to Detroit back in 2014: “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 children 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….’”

It seemed there was agreement in Michigan’s legislature about the need for some regulation of an out-of-control charter school sector, and the state senate had included in its plan a Detroit Education Commission whose purpose was to oversee the authorization and placement of charter schools in Detroit to ensure, for example, that schools remain available for children in all neighborhoods.  The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown explains why a Detroit Education Commission had been included in the Senate’s plan:  “Currently, charter schools can open with the approval of any one of a number of independent authorizers, such as universities, and there is little coordinated planning about which schools should be allowed to open and where they will be located.  Many Detroiters and state Democrats believe that any school rescue package needed to bring order to that freewheeling process by more firmly controlling where and when new schools could open… (T)o Democrats’ distress, the package passed Thursday (by the Michigan House) omitted the Detroit Education Commission, instead creating an advisory council to issue annual reports on the condition and siting of school facilities.”

In a scathing critique of Michigan’s current politics, Jen Eyer of Vanguard Public Affairs describes what happened last week as the Michigan Legislature finally passed a Detroit plan that caved in to House Speaker Kevin Cotter his colleagues: “The Senate, to its great credit, worked for 15 months to craft and pass a bipartisan plan that had the support of (Mayor) Duggan and other elected officials in Detroit, as well as Gov. Rick Snyder.  House leaders, to their great shame, subsequently shut out their Detroit and Democratic colleagues and passed a package that none of the above stakeholder supported.  Critically missing from the House package was the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would regulate the opening and closing of public and charter schools in the city.”

Brian Dickerson, columnist for the Detroit Free Press, reports that the current Detroit Schools emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, is also very concerned that the $617 million rescue plan continues to be underfunded by $50 million that will be necessary to undertake repairs to school buildings whose routine maintenance has been ignored in the long fiscal crisis.  Dickerson describes Rhodes’ presentation last week to the Free Press Editorial Board: “Rhodes is a… realist…. So instead of characterizing the DPS legislation as ‘a new beginning’ or ‘a good start,’ he methodically outlined what the bills do (acknowledged the state’s responsibility for the school district’s multi-billion-dollar debt, accumulated mostly on the watch of Rhodes’ Lansing-appointed predecessors) and what they don’t do (provide sufficient working capital to make DPS classrooms habitable and keep the school district solvent after the term-limited governor and the incumbent state Legislature are gone). The survival of DPS is in jeopardy, Rhodes conceded, unless Snyder makes good on his pledge to find at least another $50 million to supplement the $617 million GOP lawmakers grudgingly appropriated in a straight party-line vote Thursday morning.” Dickerson’s describes what he believes is, “the sort of local control Republicans envision for Detroit—a marketplace in which parents can shop anywhere they want, but private entrepreneurs decide where to locate the stores, when they’re open for business, and whether the supplement they’re distributing meets the specs mandated by the state Constitution… And leaders like Rhodes and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recognize the double-standard Republican legislators seek to codify in Detroit as a dagger aimed not just at DPS, but at the city itself.”

There are some other poison pills in the plan the legislature has sent to the governor:

  • Unlike any other school district in the state, Detroit will be permitted to hire uncertified school teachers.
  • The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown reports that the state will assign a letter grade every year for each school based on its students’ standardized test scores.  “Any school that gets an ‘F’ three years in a row must be closed, according to the bills, unless the closure would cause ‘unreasonable hardship’ for students.”
  • While a proposal to threaten collective bargaining itself did not make it into the final legislative package, salaries for newly-hired teachers will be set based on their job performance including their students’ standardized test scores.

What especially enraged the people of Detroit and Democrats across the state as the compromise was debated in the legislature was the legislative leadership’s refusal to allow any of Detroit’s elected legislators to speak to the rescue package.  Michigan’s Eclectablog editorialized: “SILENCED… Democracy in America is founded on representation of citizens by their elected officials. When elected officials are denied their right to speak on behalf of their constituents, those constituents are deprived of their rights and democracy is denied to them. That’s exactly what happened again last night in our state legislature thanks to House Republicans’ heavy-handed move… Meanwhile, after backroom deals were cut between Senate and House Republicans along with Gov. Snyder, the Senate passed the House version of the DPS legislation.”

Hollowing Out the Public

While many imagine that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.  Our society and politics have veered dangerously toward policy that rewards individualism and neglects public responsibility for the well being of all.

Some examples—

There is Kansas, where the state Supreme Court ruled last Friday that unless the legislature does something drastic in the next few weeks, the state cannot open public schools for the 2016-17 school year based on a school funding plan that has long violated the state’s constitution, despite that the legislature has been pretending to fix it.  In 2012 and 2013, Governor Sam Brownback and the state legislature slashed personal income taxes with the promise that the state’s economy would grow as a result.  The growth did not occur, and a state budget crisis ensued instead.  In February, after the state supreme court said the legislature must correct school funding by June 30 or the state’s schools must close, the legislature passed a bill to give poorer districts some additional state funding, but on Friday, according to the NY Times’ Julie Bosman, “In a 47-page ruling, the court rejected that bill, saying the Legislature’s formula ‘creates intolerable, and simply unfair wealth-based disparities among the districts.'” John Hanna of the Associated Press quotes one of the plaintiff’s attorneys: “(I)t would cost the state between $17.5 million and $29.5 million during the 2016-2017 school year to comply with the court’s latest order, depending on whether lawmakers want to prevent any districts from losing aid as they boost funding for the poor ones… Legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday.”  Whether schools open in Kansas next fall will depend on whether the legislature allocates more money at its closing session this week.

Then there is the plight of state colleges and universities.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the 2008 recession devastated state budgets for colleges and universities.  Though states have begun to restore allocations for higher education, tuition is up across the nation and course offerings and even building maintenance have suffered.  “Forty-five states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession.  States cut funding deeply after the recession hit.  The average state is spending $1,525, or 17 percent, less per student than before the recession.  Per student funding in eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—is down by more than 30 percent since the start of the recession.  In 11 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these, three states—Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vermont—have cut per student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”  The report adds that 38 states have begun to restore funding, averaging an increase nationally of 4 percent.  “Over time, students have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education.” “The cost shift from states to students has happened over a period when absorbing additional expenses has been difficult for many families because their incomes have been stagnant or declining.”

In Sunday’s NY Times, David Chen explains the local implications of this trend in New York City: “The troubles at City College, and throughout the entire CUNY system, are representative of a funding crisis that has been building at public universities across the country.  Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital, governments have been pulling back their support.”  In New York City, “While enrollment has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years, Albany’s funding of operating costs—the main source of public money for the 11 four-year colleges, where two-thirds of students are enrolled—has dropped by 17 percent adjusted for inflation….”  Chen profiles Anais McAllister, a senior English major who had hoped to earn a teaching credential until cancellation of required education courses spoiled her plans: “When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year—and another $6,000 at least—to graduate with the education credential.  With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.”

Finally there is the impact of libertarian politics and far-right lobbying by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in our statehouses.  These are the groups driving efforts to reduce regulation and rapidly expand privatization—with powerful charter school networks and their supporters protecting their right to drain tax dollars out of state budgets.  It has looked as though legislators in Michigan are finally coming together on a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from massive debt driven up under state-appointed austerity managers, but a stumbling block is that while the Senate seems willing to establish a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the location, number and quality of charter schools—many of them in Michigan for-profit, the House is balking.  It is known that the Great Lakes Education Project, supported by the far-right Dick and Betsy DeVos, is lobbying hard against the inclusion of the Detroit Education Commission in the Detroit financial rescue, and Kevin Cotter, Speaker of the Michigan House, is reported by the Detroit News to be opposed to the establishment of the commission that would regulate charters: “Cotter remains concerned the commission could be used to ‘unfairly’ target charter schools.”

Brent Larkin, the former editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in a column on Sunday, quotes U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown summarizing the many ways Ohio’s state legislature is beholden these days to privatization and special interests instead of the public good: “The legislature is so close to the payday lenders, so close to the for-profit charter school operators, so close to the oil and gas people, and so close to the gun lobby… It’s their far-right politics.  It’s their campaign contributions. It’s the whole network in Columbus that betrays the public interest so often.”