Jacques: In Detroit schools debate, listen to parents

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Francie Kennedy chose to send her child to University Prep Academy in Detroit for several reasons, most notably safety and small class sizes.

That’s right. Not for sky-high test scores. Not for a school with a clean balance sheet or other common measures of “quality” schools.

Kennedy chose a charter school because it’s what she felt was best for her child. She’s not interested in pitting Detroit Public Schools against the growing charter school community in the city. She sees benefits in both models. But she wants to be able to decide.

“We parents should have a choice,” Kennedy says. “Parents should have a choice of where our kids are being educated, and that’s the main thing.”

Kennedy, along with parents of thousands of Detroit children who currently attend charter schools, want their voices to be heard in the ongoing debate over how to reform DPS and improve all Detroit schools, including charters.

Several of these parents attended a news conference Wednesday staged by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. The charter advocacy group released the results of a recent Detroit poll it commissioned from Denno Research, asking 600 likely voters in Detroit their views on school choice and proposed school overhauls. Half the respondents were parents of school-aged children.

The poll found that roughly 70 percent of parents, when asked if they thought they had enough school choices, said they’d like more.

And more than 40 percent of Detroiters think charter schools have made education in the city better. The majority of Detroit residents oppose having a central commission making school choice decisions, saying they’d rather keep the current system and continue to make those decisions themselves. Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan and other community leaders have advocated for a more centralized process for opening and closing schools, and streamlining enrollment.

Because MAPSA requested the poll, some are going to decry the results as biased. And some of the questions were leading. For instance, the question about concentrating control of schools was worded this way:

“Currently, parents in Detroit can choose to attend the DPS school they are assigned to, other schools within DPS, a charter school in the city, a public school outside the city, private schools, or homeschool. Would you prefer: Continuing as is, where parents have a vast number of choices, or implementation of a centralized system that streamlines choices but controls parents' access to any school?”

You can see why many parents would be wary of saying they support such a central system.

Still, it doesn’t take away from the powerful message of what Detroit parents are saying about school choice.

“What do parents think?” says Dan Quisenberry. “Policymakers should listen to them.”

He’s right about that. Snyder has worked for months on crafting legislation that would lift DPS out of debt and offer additional oversight and coordination of all schools. The bills are expected any day, and the governor is trying to push lawmakers to pass them before the end of the year.

Charter school leaders have reasons to be concerned with these proposed reforms. On paper, they seem like good ideas. But giving a significant amount of power to one individual — chief education officer is the latest lingo — to choose which schools open and which close could go very badly for charters depending on who is hired for the job.

And in the end, where to send a child to school is a very personal choice. Charles McIntosh, who attended the event, sends his children to charter schools. His reasons make sense.

“I’m a super dad. I’m a dad who’s involved in his child’s education,” McIntosh says. “It’s about building a culture of parents who care. And where kids are challenged.”