Dems clash with GOP on Detroit school-closing rules

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — Chronically poor-performing schools could be closed under a new House-approved Republican plan to save Detroit’s public education system, but critics oppose the legislation for including what they call a significant “loophole” for charter schools.

The main bill in the $617 million compromise package, approved late Thursday in the state House over Democratic objections, would exempt poor-performing charter schools from closure requirements if they are in the process of “undergoing reconstitution.”

It’s a technical term for when a charter school authorizer, such as a public university, requires a charter or independent public school to make rare and significant changes, charter advocates say. But as the package moves to the GOP-controlled Senate for a vote as early as next week, Democrats argue that reconstitution is a free pass allowing such schools to stay open even if they aren’t meeting expectations.

“Some of the changes that were made to this bill would force the closure of traditional public schools but allow failing charter schools to continue to operate indefinitely,” House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said after Thursday’s vote.

Charter oversight remains a key point of contention in the compromise legislation, which is generally supported by Gov. Rick Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof despite its omission of a commission they supported to regulate school openings in the city and potentially limit charter proliferation.

Snyder said Friday he had not reviewed the charter school closing language in the revised legislation.

But the Republican governor praised the main tenets of the House plan to pay off DPS debt, give the district $150 million to invest in improving programs and school buildings, and return power to a locally elected school board.

The $615 million aid for the Detroit school district is three times more than what the Legislature contributed to the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy reorganization plan —$195 million — to boost municipal employee pension funds.

“To have half a billion dollars ... that the state would provide to repay the historic debt for Detroit Public Schools is a huge accomplishment,” Snyder told reporters after the conclusion of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s policy conference on Mackinac Island. “If you go back a year or two, people didn’t even think that was possible.”

Charter school turnarounds

Current state law exempts authorizers in certain instances from revoking a charter school’s contract if they take corrective measures in “a final attempt to improve student educational performance.” Reconstitution provisions in a revised contract can include, but are not limited to, appointing a new board of trustees, replacing school staff or replacing the management company.

“Reconstitution is very specific language referring to a charter contract, and it’s extremely rare,” said Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter group whose board includes west Michigan GOP power broker Betsy DeVos.

A charter authorizer that hires a turnaround company to manage a school should be given the opportunity to make improvements, Naeyaert said.

“It’s not an excuse to continue failing. It’s not an extension of failure. It’s just an acknowledgment if major changes have occurred and are occurring, they have time to work them out,” he said.

Detroit Public School enrollment has plummeted, falling from around 88,000 in 2009 to 46,000 in 2015. 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.

Under the new plan, Detroit schools that rank among the lowest-achieving 5 percent statewide for three consecutive years could be closed. In 2014, 24 traditional public schools, 12 state-run Education Achievement Authority schools and six charters ranked in the lowest tier.

The legislation would task the state School Reform Office with establishing an A-F letter grade system for Detroit schools. When the new accountability system is in place for three years, it would guide closures. Schools that earn a failing grade three consecutive years could be closed.

While charters could avoid closure through reconstitution, a traditional school could open at the site of a closed building if it has substantially different leaders and curriculum and is approved by the state’s School Reform Office.

The School Reform Office could also decide against closing a traditional public school if it would “result in an unreasonable hardship” to students who lack other sufficient school options.

“We’re anxious to see how far they bend the definition of extenuating circumstances,” Naeyaert said. “That’s a loophole to the same degree charter reconstitution is a loophole, but if history is a guide, 10 times more charters will be closed.”

Critics want charter checks

Critics of the new Detroit schools plan say providing debt relief and transition aid to the district may not be enough to save it without additional checks and balances on charter schools.

An earlier Senate plan, backed by Mayor Mike Duggan, would have created a Detroit Education Commission to regulate where school buildings could open and ensure they are evenly distributed in areas of need. The new package calls for a six-member “advisory council” to prepare an annual report on the condition, locations and potential siting opportunities for Detroit schools.

“It’s meaningless,” Greimel said.

Snyder said he would continue to push for the commission to better coordinate the geographic placement of traditional and charter schools in the city, even if it doesn’t get included in the final legislation.

“I don’t think people should spend all of their time making the (Detroit Education Commission) the key piece of this whole package,” the governor said.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said the advisory council will be a “pretty important group.” It couldn’t block charter schools from opening, but authorizers who buck the council’s recommendations could face public pressure to comply with the council’s wishes, he said.

“This doesn’t have the negative side of the DEC, that ... you’d have to become masterful at managing those political processes — relationships and lobbying — to open a charter school,” Quisenberry said.

The plan also would prohibit authorizers from opening a new charter school in Detroit unless they are accredited by a nationally recognized organization. Charter authorizers worked with AdvancED to develop a charter authorizer accreditation program that is the only process of its kind in the country, according to Quisenberry.

“It’s a pretty rigorous process,” he said. “It’s an independent national entity that’s doing this.”

Democrats, who have proposed charter school reforms, lambasted the proposed accreditation program as well.

“It’s self-policing,” said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor. “They can already do it. It’s not accountability. It’s a joke.”

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer Sr., who attempted his own turnaround of the city’s schools from 1999 until his departure at the end of 2001, said Friday at the Mackinac Island business conference that the House plan is an improvement from the status quo.

“We’re much better off than we were before,” Archer said.

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