Jacques: Close Detroit’s worst schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Detroit kids deserve better schools. It’s not a mystery which buildings are the worst offenders, and they should be closed.

How bad are these schools? About 20,000 elementary students attend 40 schools with less than 5 percent fourth-grade reading proficiency—a vital benchmark.

Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr., co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, shared that statistic earlier this month at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. The bad-performing schools include Detroit Public Schools, charters and schools run by the Education Achievement Authority.

It’s because of numbers like these that Rakolta and other members of the coalition, along with Mayor Mike Duggan, lobbied the Legislature hard for stronger oversight of all Detroit schools in conjunction with a $617 million bailout of DPS.

Lawmakers ultimately passed the bailout without the Detroit Education Commission the coalition wanted, but they did include several measures which should offer strong accountability. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation into law this week.

Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, sponsored the legislation that lays out new oversight for Detroit schools. She included some of the same concepts that the coalition wanted but rather than create a new layer of bureaucracy, Garcia tasked the state’s School Reform Office with an expanded role.

The office, which Snyder took control of last year, currently has the ability to close the worst-performing schools. But it has yet to close one school for that reason.

That should change.

“We should be getting rid of bad schools and right-sizing the district,” Garcia says.

The legislation states the SRO should close schools — district and charter — when they have remained on the list of the lowest performing 5 percent of Michigan schools for three years. The office is now also tasked with creating an A-F grading system for Detroit schools.

Currently about 30 city schools fall into the closure category, with the majority being DPS schools, Garcia says. And given the overcapacity of seats in Detroit — estimated at 40 percent — there is no good reason to keep the worst schools open.

The SRO has to make sure it’s not creating “unreasonable hardship” for students by closing a school. But keeping kids trapped in a failing school is not the right answer either.

That’s something the advisory council created under this legislation, which will include members from the district and charters, will need to help figure out.

This is also an excellent time to attract some of the top charter operators around the country. These companies (think KIPP and Rocketship) have stayed out of Detroit because they thought the market was too unstable, with too many players involved.

Under the DPS bills, only two Michigan authorizers qualify to open new schools — Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University — since they are nationally accredited.

That should help appease concerns. And if the SRO closes the worst schools, this could also make room for an operator like KIPP.

Last summer during a visit to Detroit, Michael Petrilli, CEO of the D.C.-based Fordham Institute, told me the key to better schools was to “deal with low-performing schools, and encourage high-performers.”

This legislation offers the tools to make that happen.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques