Editorial: In Benton Harbor, do what's best for students

The Detroit News
Benton Harbor High School students gather in front of the high school in Benton Harbor, Mich., Tuesday, June 11, 2019, during an annual Peace Walk held at the end of the school year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is taking heat for her plan to close Benton Harbor’s high school. Given the district’s years of decline and failure to educate its students, however, it is parents who should be trying to shut down the school.

While no one wants to see community institutions like high schools disappear, Whitmer doesn’t have much choice in Benton Harbor, where financial troubles and academic failure are systemic. What’s happening here is far from unique, and state officials need to have a framework in place that can help districts better manage falling enrollments and streamline administrative duties before they reach the crisis point.

Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school would close under the governor’s plan as a way to pay down roughly $18 million in debt. Eight local high schools in neighboring communities would absorb the students.

Whitmer says she wants to preserve Benton Harbor’s K-8 operations. Yet it’s hard to justify keeping open a system that isn’t delivering results for children.

The Detroit News reported this week that only 3% of the district’s third graders can read at grade level, based on the state standardized test. And zero of the 11th graders tested as college-ready for the past five years.

More:Facing protest, Whitmer says system ‘failed’ Benton Harbor kids

More:In Benton Harbor, a school crisis with racial overtones

Combine that dismal picture with declining enrollment and mismanaged finances, and it’s not hard to see how Benton Harbor got to this point.

Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center, says Benton Harbor’s officials have made some unusual choices, including with staffing. He says in a typical district, teachers comprise about half of the staff, with non-instructional staff making up the rest. In Benton Harbor, only 27% of staff are teachers. About 60% fall into other categories and include bus drivers, secretaries and custodians.

The Benton Harbor district has been in deficit for each of the last 13 years — and that’s despite being among the state’s higher funded districts. In the 2017-18 school year, the district received $13,098 in state, local and federal funding per student — $3,000 more per student than the average Michigan district that year.

Other communities in Michigan have also faced the loss of a school — or entire districts. In 2013, districts in Inkster and Buena Vista were dissolved after the Legislature passed a law allowing the state treasurer and superintendent to intervene when districts stopped being financially viable. Surrounding districts absorbed the students.

Albion chose to close its high school eight years ago, following enrollment declines. As of 2016, the Albion district merged completely with nearby Marshall schools.

Highland Park and Muskegon Heights also offer lessons for Benton Harbor. In 2012, under state emergency management, these districts were converted to charter districts as a way to separate debt from current operations. Yet even such drastic measures weren’t enough to save Highland Park’s high school. That district currently serves only K-8 students in one building.

Students in Benton Harbor do have three charter schools nearby, including Countryside Academy, which is a racially diverse high school that focuses on STEM education and project-based learning. That school outpaces Benton Harbor’s high school in proficiency, growth, graduation rates and attendance. 

Although it may be a tough transition, Benton Harbor’s students would be better served in neighboring schools. Or this could be an opportunity for a high-performing charter operator to take over the high school. In fact, this is what a five-year $47 million federal charter school grant won by the state Education Department could help do. Last month, the State Board of Education voted to prevent dispersion of those dollars for ideological reasons, but the department this week sent out the first round of funds anyway.

There are no easy answers for communities faced with these choices. But whatever happens must be in the best interest of the students — not the institutions that have failed them.