Editorial: Scary Detroit scores make case for charters

The Detroit News

Democratic presidential candidates can’t stop talking about how terrible charter schools are, yet the latest crop of national test scores from traditional public school students ought to make them all school choice converts. 

That’s especially true when you look at how students are doing in Detroit, and many other large urban areas. 

It’s not a pretty picture. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter school, in September.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has worked hard to change the culture and implement a badly needed curriculum overhaul in vital subjects like reading and math, but change hasn’t been reflected in better scores yet. 

For the sixth consecutive time, students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District have scored the worst in the country among 27 urban districts rated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress' Trial Urban District Assessment. The NAEP test is given to a representative sample of students from around the country every two years. 

More:NAEP: Detroit students improve in math; Michigan moves up in rankings

Since 2009, Detroit has posted some of the lowest scores ever recorded on the exam — and not by just a little. 

While DPSCD officials are pointing to tepid progress, the truth remains that these schools are still doing a terrible job educating students. 

For example, Detroit students scored a 183 in fourth-grade reading, 42 points less than the highest-scoring of the large urban districts, Miami-Dade. The national average for all students is 37 points higher than Detroit. To put those numbers in perspective, 10 points on the NAEP test is equivalent to a year’s worth of learning. 

So that means Detroit students are four years behind their Miami counterparts, and more than three behind the nation. Similarly, in eighth grade reading, Detroit students lag top urban district performers by 37 points. 

Math scores are equally gloomy. 

But as anyone in the school reform world can tell you, successful turnarounds are extremely difficult to pull off — and they don’t happen overnight. 

As Vitti works to reform his district, there are thousands of children who are missing out on their one chance for a good education. 

Enter charter schools. These alternative public schools aren’t perfect. But in Detroit, families have been desperate for options. 

More:Our editorial: Charters key to school choice

That’s why charters have flourished in here, where about 46% of students attend them. 

Students at charters are more likely to make gains in learning over their district peers, and more Detroit charter students graduate and enroll in college 

Yet the attacks on charters keep on coming. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently cut $35 million from charter schools, and the State Board of Education has contemplated whether the state needs any more charter schools. 

Democrats and unions like to argue that charters “take” money from public school classrooms. But as charter school researcher David Osborne and education policy analyst Emily Langhorne observe, cities like D.C. — which has a similarly robust charter sector — can see strong academic growth in both charter and traditional public schools. 

In response to the national scores, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said: "This must be America’s wake-up call. We can neither excuse them away nor simply throw more money at the problem.”

DeVos, who recently visited a charter school in Detroit, is pushing for Congress to approve an education tax credit that would pave the way for more choices for families. 

In the meantime, charters are the only alternative in Michigan. And students don’t have time to waste.