What would you do if taxpayers provided a school district with over $15,000 per student per year equating to an annual budget of over $20 million and it still ran up a multi-million dollar deficit and routinely failed to educate students? That’s the question policymakers faced four years ago with Muskegon Heights Public Schools.
It was not the only struggling district at the time, but it was so upside down that the state determined it to be in “financial emergency.” Years of mismanagement and crushing legacy costs left the district’s buildings with significant code violations and its Olympic-sized pool filled with furniture and junk. Vendors were not being paid and the district was failing to pay the required contributions necessary to fund its employees’ health care and retirement plans.
Truth be told though, the district’s academic results were even more troubling. In fact, when the option of closing the district was discussed and having students enroll in surrounding districts, it quickly became evident that nobody really wanted the Heights students enrolling in their district, unless of course they were athletic stars who could help win championships.
With other troubled schools, the state tried “fixing” them by putting them under the authority of the Education Achievement Authority, consolidating them with others, having them operate under a consent agreement with their intermediate school district, and even dissolved two districts altogether. And the state’s $617 million bailout of Detroit Public Schools is well known.
But in the Heights, a group of entrepreneurial can-do thinkers tried something different.
Instead of trying to “fix” the district, they conceived of a plan whereby the district would stop directly running schools, and instead enable a newly formed charter school to educate its students.
The idea was straightforward — the district couldn’t be fixed. All prior efforts — more money, better plans and incentives, threats, sanctions, and exhortations — had failed to make any meaningful difference. A new entity, unencumbered by years of bureaucratic build-up and unsustainable financial arrangements, would be created with the hopes that it would deliver results academically, financially, and operationally for students, taxpayers, and the community.
Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy has strong leadership, balanced books, and improving academics. It is on a glide path to pay off its old debt. All of its nearly 1,000 students attend by choice. No one is assigned. Like all Michigan charter schools, it’s prohibited by law from levying taxes. Because charters receive less money than districts, it provides taxpayers with a bigger bang for their buck.
And this solution is replicable. It’s a strategy that could be deployed with struggling districts throughout the nation to create a fresh start for kids in a taxpayer-friendly way.
All of this was accomplished by people who cared enough to persist and had the stamina to overcome the numerous obstacles that were thrown in their way. Betsy DeVos was one of them, and so was I. Without her quiet support, leadership, and encouragement, I doubt we would have ever been able to turn this innovative idea into a real solution.
There are countless other instances where DeVos has challenged the status quo and supported entrepreneurial solutions. In the Heights, it made a big difference. It also resulted in a transformative, replicable path that others can learn from.
America needs a secretary of education who has compassion and grit. DeVos has both, and a track record to prove it. If she can help our nation the way she helped in Muskegon Heights, our kids and our country will all be better off.
James N. Goenner, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute. He is a consultant in the transformation of Muskegon Heights.