The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Choice is Fine If You Know What You’re Getting.

on September 13, 2016

Today’s post is a recount of the schooling situation in Detroit, Michigan. Since it is a long and complex story, I have chosen to use lengthy quotes from an article written by Kate Zernike and published in the New York Times on June 28 rather than my own words.  I copied the significant paragraphs that give the history of charters in Detroit and omitted the stories of families who have suffered under the charter system. I wrote only the first three paragraphs below. Everything after that are quotes from the article.


The biggest problem with today’s charter schools is that they are almost always “a pig in a poke.” Many parents buy into them because of their lofty titles, false advertising, and exaggerated promises. They don’t really know anything about the teaching or behavioral systems in a school, nor are they likely to find out before enrolling their children.

This situation is especially true in high poverty areas where the public schools have been under-served for decades and acquired a bad reputation. The local officials give up because they haven’t the money, time or expertise to repair the physical damage to school buildings or to create high quality school programs. And, so, the vultures move in and start feasting on public funds, unwary parents and helpless children.

One city that is a showplace for expansion of charters and the destruction of public schools is Detroit. We’ve been hearing about the educational disaster there for years, but Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any other American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, half the Detroit charters perform only as well, or worse than, its traditional public schools.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

“The 1993 state law permitting charter schools was not brought on by academic or financial crisis in Detroit — those would come later — but by a free-market-inclined governor, John Engler. An early warrior against public employee unions, he embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run to force public schools to innovate.”

“To throw the competition wide open, Michigan allowed an unusually large number of institutions, more than any other state, to create charters: public school districts, community colleges and universities. It gave those institutions a financial incentive: a 3 percent share of the dollars that go to the charter schools. And only they — not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education — could shut down failing schools.”

“For-profit companies seized on the opportunity; they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. 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 Education 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.”

“As elsewhere across the country, charters concentrated in urban areas, particularly Detroit, where the public schools had been put under state control in 1999. In 2009, it was found to be the lowest performing school district on national tests.”

“Operators were lining up to get into the city, and in 2011, after a conservative wave returned the governor’s office and the Legislature to Republican control for the first time in eight years, the Legislature abolished a cap that had limited the number of charter schools that universities could create to 150.”

“Some charter school backers pushed for a so-called smart cap that would allow only successful charters to expand. But they could not agree on what success should look like, and ultimately settled for assurances from lawmakers that they could add quality controls after the cap was lifted.”

“In fact, the law repealed a longstanding requirement that the State Department of Education issue yearly reports monitoring charter school performance.”

“At the same time, the law included a provision that seemed to benefit Mr. Huizenga, whose company profits from buying buildings and renting them back to the charters it operates. Earlier that year he had lost a tax appeal in which he argued that a for-profit company should not have to pay taxes on properties leased to schools. The new law granted for-profit charter companies the exemption he had sought.”

“Just as universities were allowed to charter more schools, Governor Rick Snyder created a state run district, with new charters, to try to turn around the city’s worst schools. Detroit was soon awash in choice, but not quality.”

“Twenty-four charter schools have opened in the city since the cap was lifted in 2011. Eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below the district’s dismal performance expanded or opened new schools.”

“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.”

“By 2015, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an unreasonably high number of charters among the worst performing 5 percent of public schools statewide. The number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.”

“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.”

“Charter schools are concentrated downtown, with its boom in renovation and wealthier residents. With only 1,894 high school age students, there are 11 high schools. Meanwhile, northwest Detroit — where it seems every other house is boarded up, burned or abandoned — has nearly twice the number of high school age students, 3,742, and just three high schools. The northeastern part of the city is even more of an education d Like others elsewhere, charter schools receive roughly the same per-pupil state dollars as public schools. But in Detroit, it is about $7,300 a year — roughly half what New York or Boston schools get, and about $3,500 less than charters in Denver or Milwaukee.”

“This winter, as Detroit Public Schools ran out of money, Mayor Mike Duggan, a pro-charter Democrat now in his third year, argued that the traditional schools needed a solution that would address the problems posed, and faced, by charter schools.”

“He 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.”

“In February, four prominent Detroit Republican business executives, including two sons of former governors, testified in support of the plan before the Legislature, arguing that 20 years had proved that the free market alone is not enough to improve schools. One of them, Mr. Romney, likened schools to a public utility.”

“But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters and argued instead to kill off the Detroit Public Schools.”

“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. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.”

“For parents, the search remains for good schools—charter or public.”

 

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