Editorial: Vitti should keep charter door open

The Detroit News

We understand new Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has his hands full as he seeks to move the district beyond crisis mode. But recent comments indicating Vitti wants to get the Detroit Public Schools Community District out of the charter school business seem very short sighted.

It’s too soon for Vitti, along with the school board, to close the door on this form of school choice within the district. It’s also been one way for the district to compete with all the other charter schools that now educate more than half of Detroit’s students.

The district currently authorizes 14 schools (one is closing), and Vitti is proposing letting current contracts expire.

“My main charge is supporting quality, traditional schools,” Vitti says. “Charters are secondary to that.”

Vitti is right that the majority of the district’s schools need a massive overhaul. Too many students who attend the district are getting shortchanged, with a pathetically small percentage getting the basics of reading and math, as evidenced by national tests. It’s the worst urban district in the country for a reason.

But part of Vitti’s appeal was that he came from a Florida district with a wide portfolio of school options. Out of 198 buildings in the Duval County district, 35 are charter schools. Duval is one of the best urban districts in the country. Strategies that worked well there should be tried here.

It’s true that the Detroit district is operating too many facilities. A recent Citizens Research Council of Michigan report highlights how big a problem this is for the district’s bottom line.

The report finds that 35 K-8 schools are only at 50-75 percent enrollment capacity. And 29 K-8 schools are between 25-50 percent full. Seven high schools are at less than 25 percent capacity.

The 24 DPSCD schools that had been set to close earlier this year because of low performance and now are in a partnership agreement with the state also struggle with enrollment. In the face of such failure, Vitti shouldn’t take better choices away from families.

The superintendent is inevitably getting pressure from the school board to take this route. Board member LaMar Lemmons made his position clear in April when he tried to get fellow board members to ax the Education Achievement Authority’s three charters that returned this summer to the Detroit district. The board decided to extend the contract for one year, but expect that to be the last time, even though those schools showed the most progress of the 14 EAA schools.

And Lemmons wasn’t afraid to say the reason: He wanted the full per-pupil funding attached to each student and didn’t want to lose any to a charter management company.

“Some of the highest-performing schools in the city are charter schools authorized by the Detroit Public Schools Community District. How is it benefiting students if you want to close those schools?” asked Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

That’s a good question. Vitti counters he doesn’t want the schools to close. Rather another authorizer could take them over.

Vitti has indicated (reluctantly) he’d consider keeping charters, if the district can simultaneously improve traditional schools.

That’s a better approach than killing a decent program to prop up bad schools.