Commission could help clean up Detroit’s charter sector

David Osborne

Public education in Detroit is a mess. In a new national study, Detroit emerged as one of the nation’s worst big cities, with district eighth-graders performing at a fifth-grade level, on average.

Even charter schools, which enroll the majority of public school students, lag behind those of many cities. Though we have the nation’s second highest percentage of students in charters, the best charter operators and philanthropic funders avoid the city like the plague.

If Mayor Mike Duggan and other civic leaders want to change that, they should create an “advisory” Detroit Education Commission, as called for by state legislation last year, and appoint visible, respected leaders to it. That commission could shame charter authorizers into cleaning up Detroit’s charter sector by closing failing schools.

Charter authorizers give organizations their charters and withdraw them if they fail. Nationally, most are state boards or elected school boards, but in Michigan public colleges and universities do most of the authorizing. Twelve of them authorize in Detroit — and too many of those let failing schools survive, year after year.

There are superb charters here, but too many low performers drag the average down. Charters outperform district schools, yet the margins are much narrower than in many cities.

On 2017 state tests, only 23.6 percent of charter students (in third through eighth grade) were proficient in reading and only 13.5 percent in math. Those numbers were almost double the dismal performance of the district, but they are too low to convince anyone that charters are the solution to Detroit’s problems.

Charters also have higher graduation (90 percent) and college enrollment (47.5 percent) rates than the district. A ninth-grader enrolled in a charter has a 74 percent greater chance of starting college in four years than a ninth grader enrolled in a district high school. But if less than a quarter of those charter students perform at grade level, most will never finish college.

The mayor and governor tried to pass legislation last year creating a Detroit Education Commission with the power to close any failing school — district or charter. Unfortunately, Betsy DeVos and her family dropped $1.5 million on legislators and the Republican Party to defeat that provision. DeVos believes that charters should be accountable only to parents.

Sadly, 25 years of experience with charters has proven that if a school is safe and nurturing, some parents will keep their children enrolled even if they are falling far behind grade level. If authorizers don’t close those schools, they are cheating the children — not to speak of the taxpayers.

It’s no accident that where authorizers regularly close failing schools — in Boston, New York, Newark, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and other cities — charters vastly outperform district schools. Where many authorizers abdicate this responsibility — in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and other states — they don’t.

Forcing Detroit’s authorizers to close failing schools is the key to a stronger charter sector. A respected commission could approach college presidents whose institutions authorize charters and pressure them to improve or get out of the business, at least in Detroit. Few college presidents would welcome the bad publicity a commission could generate by publicly censuring them.

A stronger charter sector would then create pressure on the district to embrace similar reforms. Ten other urban districts already authorize nonprofits to take over failed district schools, for example. They call them “innovation,” “Renaissance,” or “partnership” schools, and the results are encouraging.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which initially proposed a Detroit Education Commission, recently called on the mayor to appoint “highly credible” Detroiters to set quality standards for all public schools and negotiate a district-charter compact, to boost collaboration between the sectors.

A high profile commission could accomplish both tasks. It could also create a common enrollment system for the charter sector, to ease the burden of applying to multiple charters and level the playing field, so all families had an equal shot at quality schools. That would prove the value of a common enrollment system for all public schools, and perhaps the district would join Denver, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Newark, and Indianapolis in creating one.

By closing weak charter schools, Detroit could also eliminate some of its 30,000 empty seats, to create more room for the next steps: replication of the city’s best charters and recruitment of strong operators and funders from elsewhere. By replacing the weakest charters with strong new schools every year, Detroit could inch closer to the goal of a quality school for every child.

David Osborne leads the Progressive Policy Institute’s education work.