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Vitti: Some schools of choice ‘disastrous’

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The best place for a child to be educated is a traditional public school, and some charter schools without “guardrails” have been disastrous for communities, said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit’s school district.

“Let’s be real. This is about competition,” he said Wednesday at the first State of the Schools event in Detroit. “Charters were created to be competitive.

“Choice has been disastrous in some cases. We shouldn’t let schools open like corner gas stations. The strategy has not worked to solve Detroit’s problems.”

Vitti said he wants to collaborate with charter schools, but the Detroit Public Schools Community District has to come first. Vitti would not commit to being part of a common enrollment system serving public schools and charter schools.

“Let’s fix our own house and then we can start doing things,” Vitti said. “At the end of the day, they are trying to recruit students from our system.”

Detroit has one of the largest percentages of children attending charter schools, ranking third in the country.

There were 95,350 students who 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.

Nearly 200 people, including students, parents, community members and school officials, gathered in the basement of Gesu Catholic Church for the event.

Panelists included Vitti; Rob Kimball, associate vice president for charter schools at Grand Valley State University; and Cindy Schumacher, executive director of the Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University.

The three panelist talked about the schools they oversee in Detroit, including information on suspension rates, special education populations, school closure histories and student transportation.

Kimball said charter schools outperform traditional public schools, which Vitti said was incorrect.

“We are entering a new era of education in Detroit. We want to see a strong DPSCD and a strong charter school sector,” Kimball said.

“The charter school community is half the community in Detroit. It’s not going away. DPSCD is half the community. It is not going away. Can we work together to create guardrails? That is what we are here for today,” Kimball said.

Schumacher said CMU received 57 applications to open a school in Detroit. It authorized only two.

“We’ve come a long way to have the three of us up here. Our common goal is quality education for students in Detroit.”

Jimmie Jones has a 7-year-old daughter who attends Timbuktu Academy in Detroit. He is part of 482Forward, a citywide education network in Detroit that sponsored the forum Wednesday. Jones said he went to the forum to learn more about the education system.

“I don’t know who really has the power, who has our babies interest in hand?” Jones told the crowd. “We don’t know who to address. ... How many of us have wondered why that school closed, where did that money go?”

Detroit Public Schools Community District lists 111 schools on its website. Its last reported enrollment was about 49,500 students. It also authorizes 13 charter schools on 18 campuses, according to its website.

Kimball said Grand Valley State has authorized 26 charter schools in Detroit, including eight high schools, that serve 12,000 students. It has a total of 74 charter schools in the state serving 34,000 students. The university will not be authorizing any new charter schools in Detroit in the 2018-19 school year.


CMU authorizes nine charter schools in Detroit that serve about 6,000 students. CMU became the nation’s first university authorizer more than 20 years ago.

Vitti, who took over as superintendent in the district last spring after a decade of state control, told The Detroit News in July that he is considering whether to get the district out of the business of authorizing charter schools. The board of education would make the final decision, he said.

The district, which was run by state-installed emergency managers from 2009-16, has struggled with declining student enrollment, budget deficits, school closures, low state assessment scores and teacher shortages.

Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016 approved a $617 million bailout for Detroit Public Schools, which was to help pay off $467 million in operating debt and provide $150 million in start-up funding for Detroit Public Schools Community District, a new, debt-free district.