Jacques: Why the freakout over charter leader?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Both Jiyah Pitt, 16, with Jalen Rose and Doug Ross, president of American Promise Schools, and Teion Howard, 16, say new graduation requirements will help prepare them for the challenges of college.

Shortly after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week announced her appointment of Doug Ross as her senior adviser for Michigan prosperity, outrage followed.

Opponents took to Twitter to express their dismay over a posting of the press release.

“WTF,” said one. “Sickening,” wrote another. “The first stab in the back is the deepest,” opined someone else.

So what is so terribly wrong with Whitmer’s choice?

Ross happens to have championed charter schools in the city of Detroit, starting some of the most successful schools in the city and giving poor, minority children a shot at college and a promising life.

But any association with charter schools is tantamount to betrayal to Whitmer’s liberal base (and the teachers unions who helped get her elected).

As one woman tweeted: “Governor Whitmer, I certainly hope you are not under the influence of the DeVos cartel. This is exceedingly disappointing. I thought you were a true advocate of our REAL public education, NOT elitist charter schools.”

The reality is that Ross doesn’t want to destroy public education, nor is he under the spell of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (although she similarly believes in the opportunities of school choice). He wants to make public schools better -- and that’s been the focus of his work in the charter school realm the past two decades.

Ross, a Democrat, has held numerous positions that have prepared him for this adviser role. During his career, he’s been: U.S. assistant secretary of labor, state Senator, director of the Michigan Department of Commerce, and chief innovation officer of Detroit Public Schools.

Yet it’s his roles as founder of the University Prep Schools and co-founder of American Promise Schools -- a non-profit charter management organization -- that are unforgivable.

Whitmer deserves credit for choosing Ross, who is tasked with focusing on an economic development plan for the state along with boosting higher education attainment rates -- which the governor called attention to during her State of the State address Tuesday. Part of that plan includes offering two years of tuition-free community college for all residents.

“If we’re going to ensure Michigan’s success, we have to take a proactive approach to building talent and fostering an attractive environment for businesses to create jobs,” Whitmer said in a statement about Ross.

It is noteworthy that Whitmer left out any mention of Ross’ association with charters in her press release. She obviously knew what kind of reaction that would get. 

Ross, who also noticed the absence of his history with charters, says his advisory role doesn’t include input on charter schools. And he says he has a good working relationship with the heads of Michigan’s two largest teachers unions. And he may gain some new labor friends as he progresses in his work to expand the reach of community colleges, whose staff are represented by unions.

“I’m going to be working with the governor to develop a coherent economic strategy,” Ross says. “We need more educated people.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

This shouldn’t be a controversial appointment, but it’s telling that it is. Michigan Democrats recently introduced a resolution to make for-profit charter management companies illegal. And while much of the ire against charters is usually framed as distaste for “profiting” off students (Whitmer has joined that chorus), the uproar over Ross’ new role highlights that hatred of charters runs much deeper.

More:Editorial: Democrats put target on many top charters

Ross was only involved in charters run by nonprofit organizations (which he started). And students in his schools thrived.

Ross isn’t a stranger to such criticism, however, and he’s not going to let it deter him.

“I think I’m in a position to work with both sides.”