Michigan charter school closures fire up education debate

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Venus Loving had only days to find a new school for her son Olonzo Prescott, 17, a high school senior, after Delta Preparatory Academy closed in September.   They chose Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern (in background).
 Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Detroit — The sudden closure of Delta Preparatory Academy devastated Earl Carter's 17-year-old son, who was beginning his senior year.

The Detroit charter school closed just three weeks into the new school year in September, citing financial challenges and forcing 180 students in grades 9-12 to find new schools to continue their education.

"They messed up a lot of kids' lives," said Earl Carter, whose son, Olonzo Prescott, scrambled to find a new school. "They messed up a lot of kids' lives."

Olonzo, who eventually enrolled at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern, a Detroit Public Schools Community District school, is hoping to receive scholarship interest from colleges for his athletic ability, but his prospects now look doubtful because of being forced to start over at the new school, according to his father.

He had two colleges interested in him before he left the charter school. Since transferring over, he has not heard from any schools.

"He is now trying to figure out how to pay for college," Carter said. "He played baseball and football and band at the old school.

"Now he has lost those opportunities, and no one (colleges) wants to look at him."

The sudden closure of Delta prompted cries for help from parents, renewed criticism from lawmakers and scrutiny put on the state for its charter school closure rate by education watchdogs.

Delta is among 210 charter schools that have closed in Michigan since 1995, according to data from the Center for Educational Performance and Information, the state agency responsible for reporting education data in Michigan. Seventy-five charter schools that closed were located in Detroit.

Charter schools close for a variety of reasons, including financial problems due to low enrollment and poor academic performance. Charter schools can be closed by the state, authorizer or its own school board.

Seven other charter schools shuttered this year, all in June, while nine new charter schools opened across the state this fall, according to state records. About 297 charter school districts currently operate around the state with about 151,000 students in K-12. Each district can have more than one school.

A national non-partisan watchdog agency researching charter closures across the nation and in Michigan says it wants state lawmakers here to review the record of charter school closures after it found a high rate of closures across the state.

“The alarming number of closures raises major red flags about the performance and accountability of charter schools in Michigan and whether that negatively impacts students and taxpayers,” said Arn Pearson, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy.

Using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, Michigan has a charter school closure rate of 31 percent, the same as the national rate, said David Armiak, a researcher for the center. Closures in Michigan have disrupted the education of 24,943 students, Armiak said, 87 percent of whom were black.

"Thirty-one percent of charter schools across the United States either never opened or shut their doors between 2000 and 2016, disrupting the education of 418,653 students,”  Armiak said.

The states with the largest percentages of charters closures since 2000, according to CMD, were: Kansas (77 percent), Iowa (73 percent), Ohio (58 percent), Wisconsin (43 percent), Virginia (40  percent), Washington, D.C. (39 percent), Arizona (39 percent), Florida (38 percent), Missouri (34 percent) and New Jersey (34 percent).

Officials at the Michigan Department of Education declined to comment on that closure rate saying it was not clear how it was reached, MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa said. The state does not calculate a charter school closure rate

"When a school closes, there always is a concern for its students and the need that their transition to new schools be smooth, seamless and quick. Local school districts, including public school academies (charter schools), are controlled by their local school boards. In the case of public school academies, their authorizers also play a role in their operations," DiSessa said.

Charter schools close for many reasons and if a school is running in fiscal deficit, state law requires them to work with the Michigan Treasury to develop a plan to fix that, DiSessa said.

If the school is among the lowest-performing academic schools in Michigan, it will be offered the opportunity to become a Partnership District and develop a partnership agreement to turn around their academic outcomes before having to face the next level of accountability, DiSessa said.

"Either way, there are interventions in state law that hopefully would preclude the sudden closure of a school mid-year," DiSessa said.

Buddy Moorehouse, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state’s charter school association, does not dispute closure figures from the state, but challenged the validity of CMD's list, saying it has errors, listing schools that are open as closed and listing schools that have moved but are open as closed.

But Moorehouse said the number of closures in Michigan is proof of their accountability.

“It tells you charter schools are the most accountable of all public schools,” Moorehouse said. “If they are not meeting the needs to students, they are not staying open.”

Some charter schools are closed when they do not have their contract renewed by their authorizer, which is typically a state university or community college. 

Ron Rizzo, director of charter schools at Ferris State University, which authorizes 18 charter school districts in Michigan, including Delta, said charter schools are regularly monitored by the university for their performance and economic stability.

Closures are typically made by authorizers, not local school boards as was the case for Detroit Delta Prep, Rizzo said. But before a school is closed, the authorizer will consider whether professional development for staff or new resources, such as teachers, curriculum or technology, could turn a school around, he said.

"They can get resources such as literacy coaches and academic specialist and curriculum and new Chromebooks (laptops)," Rizzo said.

Delta had entered into a partnership agreement with MDE in July before it was closed. In its plan, the school said its "weaknesses" included having a large population of students each year who are in need of credit recovery and who are living in extreme poverty.

"Effective counseling and mentoring programs need expansion and seamless integration into the school day schedule and curriculum to increase support for the high number of students struggling with social-emotional deficits," the partnership report stated.

Edythe Friley, board chair of Detroit Delta Preparatory, said a shortage of certified teachers and declining student enrollment jeopardized the school’s ability to provide students with the quality education they deserved. 

"When the management company failed to order students’ books, hired a principal who worked from home, and offered three unrealistic budget options without a plan to improve education, it was clear the board had to act in the best interest of the students," Friley said in a statement. "Therefore, the board strategically voted to close Delta Prep before Count Day so students would have the chance to fully enroll in other schools. We were disappointed about closing the school and regret the manner in which it was done."

Following the decision to close the school, its board released a statement reported by local media that read: "Please know the board reluctantly made this decision, but it was necessary for the best interest of the students enrolled in the academy, both academically and fiscally." Further efforts to reach board members were unsuccessful.

The fiscal challenges faced by some charter schools are not as easily remedied, charter school officials said, considering Michigan's K-12 population has been on the decline for several years. 

Ten years ago, Michigan had 1.645 million students in K-12. Last year, that number was 1.468 million.

Mark Ornstein, chief executive officer for University Prep Schools, a charter school company that operates 10 schools in Detroit, said 90 percent of charter schools close because of insufficient enrollment.

"For charters, that is something you sweat," Ornstein said. "Everyone is looking at market share. We do put a lot of emphasis on enrollment and reviewing it by looking at data."

Michigan started with 12 charter school districts in the 1994-95 school year. Since 1995, the number of districts increased every year through 2015 — reaching a high of 300 in 2014-15.

The numbers decreased for the first time in the 2016-17 school year and again in 2017-18 when the number was 295 districts. Although new schools opened every year, other charters schools were closed.

"Over the last three years, it's been a wash, with the number of closures and openings were the same," Moorehouse said.

State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, says the cycle of charter schools opening and closing every year is brutal for families, forcing students to frequently change schools, which disrupts their education.

"It’s a huge concern. Part of the reason this is allowed to happen is we have lack of authorizer accountability laws on the books," Zemke said. "We allow for authorizer shopping where companies jump from one authorizer to another when a school is closed."

Several bills have been introduced over the years to require more transparency and reporting from education management organizations, for-profit or nonprofit companies that manage charter schools, but few have been successful in a Republican-dominated Legislature, Zemke said. 

Moorehouse points out several laws have been passed to regulate charter schools, including in 2009 when the charter school law was strengthened to include an automatic-closure provision for poor-performing schools.

In 2011, the Legislature also passed a law that lifted the cap on the number of university-authorized charter schools.

"The (2011) law also greatly strengthened the regulations surrounding charter schools, providing for greater transparency in reporting and strengthening the laws regarding conflicts of interest in charter schools," Moorehouse said.

New or expanding Michigan charter schools will be eligible to receive up to $1 million through a $47 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education operated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime financial supporter of charter schools in Michigan.

State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, says some of the federal money should be used to keep charter schools like Delta Prep afloat to avoid school closures during the school year.

"I don’t think charters need any closer scrutiny. If anything, they are over-scrutinized," he said. "I think there ought to be a law they can only close at certain break points in the school year. Three weeks into the school is not OK."

In 2019, parents in Detroit can access an A-F grading system for Detroit's charter and traditional public schools, which will include information on academic performance and re-enrollment rates for all schools in the city. The grading system only applies to Detroit schools but is being required by the state. 

Some parents of Delta students said they had trouble finding new high schools to accept their children several weeks into the new school year.

Carter also had a freshman son who attended Delta. His wife, Venus Loving, says six high schools refused to take her children, citing closed enrollment periods or full enrollment. Loving started a Facebook support group to help other Delta parents in their search for schools.

Both of her sons were accepted at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School, but the entire situation was difficult for her family and parents were given only days to prepare, she said.

"We loved Delta. It was a very small school. The kids got the attention they needed," Loving said. "If they knew they were going to close, they should have done it, and not reopened for three weeks."

Carter said his older son is stressed out and has taken an after-school job to save money for college.

"I'm trying to find something to help, even if I have to sell water. My son wants to be a police officer," Carter said.