Jacques: Education reformer fired for suggesting radical change
Greg Harris, the state director of StudentsFirst in Ohio, decided to weigh in on the Detroit school reform debate. And now he’s the former state director.
Harris got fired for a guest piece he wrote for The Detroit News last Friday. Apparently, he hadn’t received permission from his counterpart at the StudentsFirst Michigan office before writing the piece that struck a raw nerve with some of the key players in the Detroit school turnaround.
Firing Harris seems over the top. After all, he had spent some time in Detroit in 2011 as the interim director of Excellent Schools Detroit, so his perspective was valid.
In addition, while Harris’ ideas were provocative, they were well-reasoned. He suggested that Detroit Public Schools be converted to an all-charter district for financial and academic reasons. This is a concept that has worked in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of city schools in 2005. And a growing number of cities are relying more heavily on charter schools.
Yet some thought Harris’ opinions were too radical, including top officials within StudentsFirst, the education reform organization founded by former Washington, D.C., school chief Michelle Rhee.
“Our team in Michigan has worked tirelessly for policies that will make Detroit schools better and only our team members in Michigan are qualified to discuss these important issues,” Tim Melton, StudentsFirst vice president of legislative affairs wrote in a news release, which also stated Harris was fired. Melton has Michigan ties, having served several terms in the state House prior to taking this national job.
But maybe radical is just what Detroit needs.
It’s also the approach Rhee took. She formed the organization in 2010 as a way to help states push through important legislative changes to boost teacher performance and school accountability. Rhee is also an advocate of charter schools, although she stops short of saying they are the only option.
A few years ago, Rhee wrote a book about her work with StudentsFirst, as well as her time as chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools. She titled her book “Radical.”
Rhee has never been afraid of pushing against the education establishment and teachers unions, and because of that, many vilified her work.
She hasn’t backed away from her mission, although last year she stepped down as CEO of StudentsFirst. Following her departure, the organization seems to be losing some of its stature — and nerve.
“My job isn’t to preserve a system that's doing a disservice to children,” Rhee told me in a 2013 interview. “We are facing a crisis.”
At that time, Rhee noted the challenges facing Detroit and how simply pouring more money into DPS wouldn’t solve the problem. “If you put more money in a broken system, you get the same results,” she said.
Unfortunately, two years later, the crisis with Detroit schools has only worsened. And StudentsFirst Michigan is clearly siding with community members and union leaders who want to protect the status quo in Detroit.
The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which came out with a report in March, has advocated for giving control of DPS back to an elected school board. Coalition co-chairs have outright blamed the prevalence of charter schools for the woes of DPS.
Oh, and the coalition wants a fat bailout check from the state.
It’s hard to imagine Rhee supporting that kind of plan.
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, is no fan of shipping millions of dollars to DPS. Instead, he has suggested dissolving the district and offering families a voucher-like system, which would give parents full control of their child’s education.
DPS is barreling toward insolvency, and its academics aren’t improving. The 47,000 students who attend these schools deserve better. And the future of Detroit depends on it.
So why not think radical?