With no new Detroit charters, it’s not Wild West

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

For the first time in years, no new charter schools will open in Detroit this fall. This should help quell concerns that the proliferation of these alternative public schools is reminiscent of the Wild West.

That accusation has been leveled at the charter community by detractors—including by Democrats on the State Board of Education—since the Legislature lifted the cap on charter schools four years ago.

Yet the reality is that charters aren’t acting like outlaws. The fact that this year only seven new charters will open in Michigan mirrors the overall trend with these schools.

“Our system is working exactly the way it’s supposed to be working, responding to parents and communities, and this is why Michigan’s system of charter school authorizing and oversight is considered a model across the country,” observes Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

This development comes at a pivotal time, as charter schools in Detroit are taking center stage in discussions over how to improve education in the city. More than half of city students now attend charters.

Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan and a coalition of Detroit leaders have competing plans on how to revamp schools. And they are using the summer to sell their respective proposals to lawmakers, as legislative action is necessary to implement the reforms.

All three overhauls call for a major bailout of Detroit Public Schools, which is unlikely to survive without an influx of state aid.

The blueprints also agree on the need for better coordination and oversight of all city schools, including charters. Yet they differ greatly on who should control that system.

Charter schools are watching closely to see how this plays out, because all of these plans pose potential dangers.

Snyder, who is a proponent of school choice, has called for more accountability across all schools. He envisions a system where DPS and charters are held to the same quality benchmarks. Those that fail to live up to these standards would ultimately be closed. The governor wants a commission, jointly appointed by him and the mayor, to ensure schools are abiding by these metrics. The commission would in turn hire an education manager to oversee the work.

So one individual would have vast power over opening and closing schools, as well as deciding where new schools could locate.

Duggan and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren also have proposed a commission, but they don’t want the governor to have any part of it.

It’s easy to see how such a framework could go badly for charter schools, depending on the political backing of this commission.

That’s alarming to some charter leaders in the state. And it should be. Even if the Legislature sided with Snyder’s plan, this governor will only be around for another three years. That means another governor with a very different perspective on school choice could upset the balance on the Detroit commission.

Charters can take some comfort lawmakers don’t seem enthusiastic about taking on this effort to fix Detroit schools, and they definitely won’t act on it until they finalize a road deal.

The charter community is not opposed to some changes, acknowledging the need for better coordination of enrollment, transportation and even site selection of new schools. But Quisenberry looks at these proposed reforms as a “chainsaw” approach. He thinks a less invasive tool could be more effective.

Quisenberry and Jared Burkhart, executive director of Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, are proponents of sitting down with Duggan and working through some of these problems on their own, which could be done without adding new layers of oversight.

“This should be less about bureaucracy and more about making smart decisions,” says Burkhart.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.