Detroit school rescue hinges on charter school rules

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A plan to save Detroit Public Schools from mounting debt hinges on controlling the city’s number of charter schools, a proposal opposed by charter advocates and many legislative majority Republicans.

A $715 million rescue plan approved last month by the GOP-led state Senate would create a new Detroit Education Commission with broad authority to control new school openings for the next five years. But the commission proposal faces changes in the state House, where Speaker Kevin Cotter opposes the idea as charter supporters argue it would limit student choice and shut out new operators.

In late March, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature gave the Detroit school district $48.7 million in emergency aid to avoid payless paydays and tide it through the end of June until a longer-term package is approved.

Under the Senate legislation, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan would appoint all seven members to the commission, including three individuals with charter school ties. He and other supporters say the commission is needed to control the number of public schools citywide and raise academic standards across the city.

More than 160 traditional and public charter schools have either opened or closed in Detroit during the past seven years, Duggan told legislators earlier this year, and the “lack of geographic and curriculum coordination has created chaos and confusion for Detroit families.”

The public school district was responsible for much of the turnover, opening 18 schools and closing 95, according to Duggan’s overview. Nine charter schools closed and 42 opened during the same period.

The legislation would allow high-performing schools to “replicate” without interference from the commission, but critics say it leaves out new charter operators that may want to move into the city.

The commission would inherently favor traditional public schools since a majority of four members wouldn’t be dedicated charter appointees, said Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project. He noted the commission could be extended five years only if the district shows improvements in enrollment, academics and finances.

“The DEC’s goal is to prop up the new Community School District. Its No. 1 priority is to guarantee and ensure enrollment in the new traditional district,” said Naeyaert, whose pro-charter group counts Republican power broker Betsy DeVos as a board member.

“That’s not a suspicion; it’s clearly the statutory goal. … And since birthrates continue to decline, the only way you can ensure enrollment in the district is to limit other options.”

DPS enrollment has continued to plummet in recent years, falling from around 88,000 in 2009 to 46,000 in 2015, a period when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

Because state education funding is tied to enrollment, the district’s aid has declined as well. Emergency managers have been unable to cut fast enough in response, and district debt has continued to grow.

John Rakolta Jr., a Detroit-area businessman and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said he is “befuddled” by charter opposition to the education commission.

Accountability system

The commission would encourage higher-quality schools whether they are charter or traditional, he said. It would also create an accountability system to rate each school with an A-F letter grade, which would inform decisions to open or close schools.

“We have to have a place for 45,000 students come fall,” said Rakolta, stressing the possibility of DPS insolvency. “If DPS cannot compete effectively, those kids will ultimately migrate over to the best charters… . We’re not trying to keep them in DPS if they don’t put out a reasonable product.”

Of the 113,000 or so school-age kids in Detroit, more than half attend a publicly funded charter or a school outside the city limits. Charter advocates argue the education commission is an attempt to limit the growth of these kinds of public schools.

“The whole thing behind charters is to create an open system so that parents, and even educators, have a way to empower themselves,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

“For an educator, it’s opening a school. For a parent, it’s choosing a school. This will shut those things down.”

Under the Senate plan, the commission would recommend the “accountability system” that the state would use to assign letter grades to all schools in the city.

A traditional school that received failing grades for three consecutive years would be subject to a state “intervention” model, including possible closure or appointment of a chief executive officer. The state would be required to notify the charter school authorizer — usually a state university — if a charter gets an “F” grade for three years, and authorizers would be mandated to amend or revoke the contract of habitually poor performers.

New Detroit Chairman Bill Taubman called the proposed commission a “critical” part of the larger Detroit schools rescue package. He disputed accusations the commission would “starve” charter schools or stifle competition.

“Nothing could be further from my mind — my father was the first founder of charter schools in Michigan — but we have to realize this isn’t like buying Crest or Colgate toothpaste,” Taubman said.

He argued that the ability to regulate school placement throughout Detroit is important because parents “have limited choices based on the proximity of where they live, and there is little transparency as to the quality of the schools.”

Snyder, who supports the Senate-approved plan and proposed commission, has urged legislators to finalize a DPS rescue plan by summer.

Local school officials would need time to make changes by the time the new fiscal year begins on July 1. The Senate plan calls for school board elections by August, meaning clerks would need time to prepare for sending out absentee ballots.

‘Something much different’

But Cotter said he is not expecting any immediate action on the DPS package. He told reporters the lower chamber needs time to develop an alternative proposal.

“I think what we’re going to need to see is something much different — something much different — than the plan that came out of the Senate,” said Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant. “I think we have to keep the focus on the kids, as I’ve said all along. We can’t just create this new district, provide the funding and not have true reform.”

Cotter has called the proposed commission his “greatest topic of concern” with the Senate plan. He also questioned the wisdom of moving so quickly back to an elected school board.

A GOP package under debate in the House Appropriations Committee does not include the commission and would phase in an elected Detroit school board over eight years.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he hopes the proposed commission remains in the final plan and does not think it will limit charter schools.

“It’s simply a way to make sure that the A-B schools get to replicate and anybody else has to go through extra hoops” he said, referencing the grading system.

“The effort there is to replicate the high-performing schools so these kids have a better opportunity.”