Educators discuss impact of school choice at WSU forum

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

During a debate on school choice in America, Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Wednesday he could speak first-hand about what it was like to walk into a school system decimated by unregulated choice.

“You hear about studies on choice. If you want to go to the place where choice was implemented at the purest level of the laissez-faire market, come to Michigan and come to Detroit,” Vitti said told a room of educators at Wayne State University.

More than half of the city’s children attend charter schools, which has resulted in massive school closures, teacher layoffs and skyrocketing budget deficits for the Detroit Public Schools Community District in the last decade.

“We hear it’s about empowering and leveling the playing field,” he said. “Stop studying (choice) and start acting different from a policy perspective. I am an advocate of research but we need to look at the impact of what happened in Detroit and repeating bad policy.”

Vitti, who came to Detroit in May 2017, also blamed years of emergency management for destroying the city’s public school system, which recently scored the lowest in the nation for the fifth year in a row on a national assessment.

Vitti said he believes in choice and competition, but for every good charter there is a great traditional public school in Detroit.

Students who live in Detroit have choice and yet there has not been improvement or success, Vitti said.

About 95,350 students lived in the district in the 2016-17 school year. According to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 53 percent of children, or about 50,460 students, in the district attended a charter school.

According to the report, there were 64 charter schools in Detroit in 2016-17. This school year, there are 60 charter schools, according to Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

“Instead of obsessing about choice, let’s have a conversation of at scale improvement and at scale success,” he said. “I think its time to go back to a system that actually worked. Once upon a time DPS was one of the best urban school district in the country.”

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, said Detroit has tried to create a single application system for Detroit parents to know what educational choices they have across the city.

“The challenge is when you are in a hyper-competitive environment, with 14 different entities authorizing schools, you don’t get collaboration, and it’s the children who suffer,” Allen said.

Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State, said Detroit can be an innovator on how to do choice right.

“It’s important to think about how we improve all schools for all kids. ...We need to have critical conversations on what measures mean ... so if you are still looking at achievement and not growth you are looking at how many poor kids there are in that school,” she said.

The Wayne State University College of Education hosted the event, “School Choice in Urban America: Prospects and Challenges,” at the Student Center.

R. Douglas Whitman, dean of the College of Education, said school choice is a complex and often controversial issue.

“It is also one of the chief concerns of educators, parents and communities in Detroit, throughout Michigan and across the country,” Whitman said. “As an institution committed to our community and as educators focused on ensuring the success of Michigan’s children and schools, it is critical that we provide information, prompt inquiry and promote involvement surrounding school choice so all children have access to excellent schools.”