Column: Protecting public schools at kids’ expense

Greg McNeilly

Gretchen Whitmer, a career politician and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018, caused quite a stir last week when she declared war on kids in Detroit — and across the state — threatening to close their schools, even when those schools dramatically outperform other schools in the city and state.

In a startling attack on Detroiters with racial undertones, Whitmer promised to sacrifice the futures of predominantly minority and lower-income students attending public charter schools to protect dozens of chronically failing traditional public schools — and, more importantly, the union bosses who rely on the failure-factories to maintain their one-percenter lifestyles and keep their political checkbooks flush with cash.

Her argument went something like this — if she becomes governor, she’ll cut funding for the authorizing universities to force them to close “failing” charter schools. When asked directly whether she’d take action to close chronically failing traditional public schools, including dozens in Detroit, to give their students a chance at a better education in a higher quality school, Whitmer went the other direction, promising she’d reward them with additional funding.

Her scheme is as absurd as it is offensive. First, Michigan’s charter school authorizers, public charter school boards, and Michigan parents do a remarkable and commendable job holding their schools accountable. Since Michigan law permitted students to attend charter public schools, 177 have been closed by their own authorizers because of poor performance.

In other words, when a charter public school consistently fails to meet the needs of the students it serves, that school gets closed. It’s happened 177 times.

How many traditional public schools have been closed for poor performance in the same time period? You guessed it. Zero. None. Zilch. Nada. Not one. Every failing traditional public school in the state remains open, continues to trap kids unfortunate enough to live in the wrong zip code, and systemically robs students of their futures while wealthy politicians rake in massive campaign donations from union bosses whose livelihoods depend on our kids’ failures.

Of the 38 schools currently facing potential closure by the state Department of Education for chronic underperformance, only 2 are charter public schools. 36 are traditional public schools, and most of them are in Detroit.

Here’s where Whitmer’s attack on kids really goes off the rails. Her scheme would disproportionately hurt minority families and the poor. Disproportionately is an understatement.

Charter schools serve a higher percentage of minority students than traditional public schools, and it’s not close. Statewide, minority students account for 29 percent of the kids attending traditional public schools. Sixty-eight percent of charter school students are minorities.

Forty-three percent of traditional school students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Seventy-one percent of charter students qualify.

Gretchen Whitmer knows these numbers. She knows Detroit is the poorest big city in the United States. She knows that more than half of the students in Detroit — over 50,000 — attend charter public schools. She knows that despite serving more students, only 2 charters are “failing” while dozens of traditional publics in the same city are chronically leaving students behind.

She knows studies show charter schools perform significantly better than the traditional public schools in Detroit. She knows they get dramatically better results despite receiving thousands of dollars less per-student in state funding. She knows low-income and racial and ethnic minority students make up the overwhelming majority of students enrolled in these schools. She knows their parents chose those schools for their kids because they love their children and want them to succeed.

Gretchen Whitmer knows the facts. She knows her attacks on charter public schools will disproportionately — and significantly — hurt poor and minority students. She just doesn’t care.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.