Kate Zernike’s extraordinary expose in yesterday’s NY Times about K-12 education in Detroit, Michigan is a must-read. The headline describes the reality today in Detroit: For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools. This post will summarize Zernike’s critique, but you’ll need to read her piece to learn how Detroit’s school-choice realities are being felt by the city’s poorest parents—who must spend hours delivering their children to schools spread across the 140 square mile school district where public transportation is inadequate and many charters do not provide any busing. You’ll also learn how unregulated, awful schools are truncating the futures of the children Zernike profiles.
Zernike narrates the history of Detroit’s school marketplace. In 1993, John Engler, Michigan’s “free-market-inclined governor,” “embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run….” “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos. Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States. While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”
Lack of regulation was a cornerstone of school choice in Detroit from the very beginning. School districts, community colleges and public universities can authorize and supposedly oversee charter schools, and they get an incentive of 3 percent of the state dollars paid to each charter school they sponsor. “And only they—not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education—could shut down failing schools.” Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit management companies: “The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors. Sometimes they were one and the same, as with J.C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies. Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos—she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor—established the Great Lakes Educational Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative… Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew. The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.” Huizenga even managed to get a law passed by the state legislature that permits for-profit charter companies not to pay taxes on any properties they lease to schools.
It is a free-for-all that has failed the children but has at the same time been profitable for the charter management companies and their sponsors: “With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away—as far from Detroit as Portland, ME., is from New York City.”
Zernike profiles families whose children have changed schools multiple times after parents, drawn by incentives and promises of quality education, discover they have been sold a myth: “With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs. The competition to get students to school on count day—the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school—can resemble a political campaign. Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals. They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”
Finally this year, as the legislature set out to develop a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from years’ of deficit spending by a succession of state-appointed emergency managers, it seemed as though there would be a way incorporate some charter oversight as part of the plan, but it didn’t work out. Mayor Mike Duggan, “proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate… Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from Western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission. Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal… But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters…. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission.”
Please read For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools. This blog has covered the problems in the Detroit Public Schools here.