Superintendent hopeful takes stance for school choice

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

One of two candidates vying to be superintendent of Detroit’s school district said he “philosophically” supports school choice but rejects for-profit charters.

“I think it's criminal that 80 percent of our charters are for-profit, and I think it's criminal that the majority of them are in Detroit,” Nikolai Vitti said during public interviews Wednesday conducted by the school board and community members for Detroit Public Schools Community District.

“That being said, I philosophically am for choice.”

Effective school choice features “guardrails” to ensure all options remain accountable and qualified, he added.

His position highlights a raging debate over boosting traditional public schools while offering school choice and charters. Michigan has 302 charter schools that serve 1.5 million students. More than 146,000 students now attend charter schools, and more than 123,000 students attend public schools of choice outside the district in which they live. The Detroit district is the largest in the state and has been losing students for years to charter schools and neighboring districts.

In addition to charter schools, Vitti addressed a wide range of topics while fielding questions during the three public interviews conducted by the district’s school board and two panels of community members at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High on the city’s west side.

Vitti currently serves as superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida. He is competing against Derrick Coleman, superintendent of River Rouge schools. A third candidate dropped out.

One candidate will be selected by the school board. The interviews began Wednesday with Vitti and continue Monday with Coleman.

Vitti said his Detroit roots top his reasons for applying for the job. He was born and raised in Dearborn Heights and has family in the area.

“I knew I would regret not applying for this job because this is my home,” said Vitti. “That’s why I’m here and that’s why I want the job. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Vitti’s ties to the area were important to panelist Kymberly Calhoun, a parent action leader at Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy.

“I had no idea that he was actually from the Detroit area. That was big for me,” said Calhoun, who has a 10th- and an 11th-grader. “I came here with a certain tone; my tone has changed.”

Calhoun said she also was impressed by Vitti’s stance on testing. During his interview, the candidate stressed that while tests serve as valuable “gate keepers” to higher education, they cannot stand alone in evaluating a student’s potential.

“A test can never define who a child is and who a child can become,” Vitti said.

As superintendent, Vitti would move away from creating a “culture of teaching to the test,” he said.

Vitti also touched on the topic of school closures, saying he has never overseen a school shut down or conversion of a building into a charter school.

“I don't think there is anything worse in a community than closing schools,” he said. “I think it tears a hole in the community.”

Should closures become inevitable, Vitti said he wants those decisions to remain local.

“I think the only entity that should have the authority to close schools is the school board. Period,” he said, referring to recent threats by the state’s School Reform Office to close underperforming schools, as many as 24 in Detroit. The district is suing the state to stop closures of schools.

Vitti, 40, has been superintendent at Duval since November 2012.

Vitti earned a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education in education, administration, planning and social policy. He received his master’s degree of education from there, and a master’s degree from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Vitti closed his marathon day with a public interview with the school board, during which members alternated posing questions before an audience of a couple dozen. The candidate revisited many topics from throughout the day.

He took aim at the method of singling out schools in the lowest 5 percent. “The lowest five percent criteria guarantees that there will always be a 5 percent,” Vitti said.

If named to lead the district, Vitti plans to live within city limits and send his kids to traditional public schools, he said, though cautioned that he and his wife would evaluate the “right match” for each of his four children, who next year will be in the third through eighth grades.

Vitti’s key goal in Detroit would be to make the district a desirable alternative to charter and private schools.

“(I am) unapologetic about being competitive with charter schools,” Vitti said. “If there’s going to be a marketplace of choice, let’s compete.”