Some charter leaders back Duggan’s Detroit school group

Christine Ferretti and Chad Livengood
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some leaders of Detroit charter schools pledged Tuesday their support alongside Mayor Mike Duggan for a citywide commission that would decide the placement of schools in the city.

Officials from about 20 charter schools and organizations and a leader from Detroit Public Schools joined the Democratic mayor to tout an amended Senate proposal for a Detroit Education Commission that would set the same standards for closing failing DPS and charter schools.

“The children of Detroit have suffered long enough by our own adult mistakes. They should suffer no longer,” said Ralph Bland, CEO of New Paradigm for Education, a nonprofit charter management organization.

“Today is not about Detroit Public Schools versus charter schools,” added Bland. “We must have a system of quality and accountability that eliminates the political and structural barriers which have prevented children from excelling at high levels of academic excellence.”

The gathering at the Northwest Activities Center came as the mayor continues to clash with Michigan’s charter school lobby in a political legislative fight over creating the commission as part of a bailout package for Michigan’s largest school district.

On Thursday, Duggan hosted a two-hour meeting at the Manoogian Mansion with 30 charter school operators and Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes in an effort to convince skeptics to embrace a proposed commission.

Among them was Clark Durant, co-founder of Cornerstone Schools, which operates four charter schools in Detroit. On Tuesday, Durant said the meeting spurred a lively talk about people who are dedicated in every way to bring excellence across every school in the city.

He says he supports an amended bill that would create equal standards for the opening and closing of DPS and charter schools. It also would make vacant city-owned school buildings available to both DPS and charters to open new schools, among other things.

“One thing is clear: We need more, not less, excellent choices,” Durant said. “I believe that this is the beginning of that turnaround.”

Added Doug Ross, president of the American Promise Schools, “With the amendments the coalition and the mayor have agreed to, I believe we have a system with a level playing field for Detroit Public Schools and charters.”

But Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, sent charter school operators a letter Friday saying Duggan used “bare-knuckles, big-city politics” in a mayoral shakedown to win support for the commission.

The letter angered some city charter school advocates who said Duggan’s message was twisted out of context by MAPSA, the main lobbying arm for the school choice movement.

On Tuesday, Quisenberry reiterated his belief that injecting city politics into the debate won’t help bring a resolution to the Detroit schools overhaul at the Capitol. The state already sets standards, he said, and Detroit’s children shouldn’t be treated any different. No matter who appoints a DEC, he doesn’t think it will work.

“Generally, we don’t think the DEC will work,” Quisenberry said, adding a great number of charter operators have not supported Duggan’s DEC plan. “It is interjecting the city authority. That doesn’t happen across the state of Michigan.”

The creation of a commission with the power to close poor-performing schools run by Detroit Public Schools and independent charter operators is at the center of a GOP Senate-approved $700 million plan to rescue DPS from financial collapse.

But the Republican-controlled House passed a $500 million bailout for DPS earlier this month without the commission idea.

A new statewide poll of likely voters shows narrow support for the Detroit Education Commission being empowered to limit the growth of charter schools in the city.

Duggan has said he’s met with 103 of the House’s 109 members as part of his lobbying effort. Duggan stressed that the city needs more quality schools, both charter and DPS, and the representatives joining him Tuesday want to work together.

“They’ve all come together to say; what we’re doing is not working. There’s not enough quality choice in this city,” Duggan said. “What if we come together and have single standard.”

Also joining the charter operators on Tuesday was Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent of Detroit Public Schools.

“What we are standing for is accountability for all,” said Meriweather, adding that DPS staff is “dedicated, committed, willing and ready to step up to the plate for accountability measures moving forward.”

In Detroit, about 46,000 students attend DPS schools, 50,000 kids go to charter schools and another 27,000 children attend public schools in neighboring cities.

The Senate plan would create a citywide report card system for all DPS and charter schools that could be used to close failing schools after three consecutive years of receiving a “D” or “F” grade. The state’s School Reform office would be empowered to close persistently failing schools.

Legislative leaders met Tuesday to continue negotiations over the DPS legislation.

“It’s not soup yet,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, the Hart Republican sponsoring the Senate plan for DPS, said Monday there’s no deal in place yet.

“There’s still a lot of discussion going on,” Hansen told The Detroit News.

A legislative conference committee on Tuesday added $72 million for Detroit schools to a 2017 budget bill heading to the full House and Senate for consideration. The one-year funding would go to a new debt-free district that would be created under the larger DPS plan still up for debate.

“As the bill moves forward, we have to make sure the money’s in there so we can get this done,” Hansen said.

Lawmakers are mostly in agreement that the state needs to pay off $467 million in debt DPS racked up, mostly under the watch of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009.

But the Senate and House approved vastly different funding plans for DPS. The Senate set aside $200 million for the new debt-free school district for cash flow purposes and money to invest in improving education programs and school buildings. The House approved $33 million for transition costs.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, said Tuesday he could see the House going up to $135 million for start-up costs. But most House Republicans aren’t budging in their opposition to the commission, Kelly said.

“How I can rationalize (the money) is we have culpability, our hands are dirty and I think we’ll pay our fine and get out of town,” Kelly said in an interview Monday.

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.