Fewer People May Mean More Detroit Charters

Published November 1, 2008

As Detroit’s population dwindles in the wake of government scandals and widespread poverty, the city’s public school system is losing students. An unforeseen positive byproduct of this dire situation is that the city could be getting more charter schools.

As long as Detroit Public Schools enrolls at least 100,000 children, it maintains “first-class” status in the state, a designation giving the district unique financial powers and board structure and limiting how many charter schools can be founded. Section 502 of the school code, which has been in place since 1976, forbids community colleges to authorize charter schools in a first-class district.

But DPS estimates only 97,000 students are currently enrolled this year, which is expected to be confirmed in a September audit due later this fall.

As soon as the district’s first-class status is lost, qualified community colleges could open up as many charter schools in Detroit as they please, said Kathryn Summers-Coty, chief analyst of the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency. Two colleges in Detroit—Bay Mills and Wayne County Community College—could foster the charter schools.

In response to the looming opportunity for charter schools, opponents introduced HB 5765 last February in the state legislature. The measure would reduce to 75,000 the minimum number of students required to maintain first-class status. The bill was still pending at press time.

Struggles Ahead

Although no new charter schools would likely open within the next academic year, Michigan’s urban Democrats are still planning to fight any expansions, said Michigan Association of Public School Academies spokesman Gary Naeyaere.

“It’s going to be an exciting time in the Lansing legislature,” Naeyaere said. “I think you’re going to see a rather healthy discussion this fall about what should be the right approach in response to this.”

The debate is heightened because of the failure of many of Detroit’s schools. The city’s high school graduation rate was just 37.5 percent in 2005—the most recent year for which records were available at press time—according to a report from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, released in June.

The children’s education is compromised by the school district’s financial instability and political struggles within its bureaucracy, analysts say. Crime, drugs, and violence are rampant in many of the schools. Currently 47 percent of Metro Detroit residents are functionally illiterate, according to the Detroit Literacy Coalition Web site.

The competition charter schools provide could redeem some students’ experience, said Burton Folsom, an education expert and former analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.

“It’s obvious Detroit is not doing a good job in the public school system,” Folsom said. “Any student who is removed from a public school into a charter school has a better chance of learning to read and write. In other words, if we could remove 100 percent from the public schools, that would increase Detroit’s chance of removing itself from poverty.”

Competitive Market

Critics, however, worry charter schools would lock the most challenged students in the worst schools because charters can choose their students from a long waiting list, disqualifying special-needs children or those with behavioral problems if they want, said Detroit Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Margaret Weertz.

“I am not against choice, but I am against schools that come in for monetary reasons and don’t produce, don’t take all the students like we take,” Weertz said. “If it’s not an even playing field … well, it’s not real competition, is it?”

Weertz said she also worries charter schools would divert resources from public schools that desperately need them.

Folsom said the competition would weed out the worst public schools and preserve the good ones.

“If we had restaurants that failed, customers would just go to another,” Folsom said. “Charter schools bring education more into a market economy. Thus, the bad ones would fail and the good ones would get more students, as opposed to the public schools, which are perpetuating [failure] year in and year out.”

Too Much, Too Little

Weertz said many of Detroit’s charter schools have not performed well, either. Many parents don’t realize this, she said, and enroll their children in a failing charter school when a government-run public school could better educate them.

“Parents do the best they can, but they often don’t know how to pick a school,” Weertz argued. “Obviously, parents should have more choice. No one would argue that’s a bad thing. But how are we rating schools? How do we know if schools that come in for an advantageous reason are really producing a better product?”

Folsom said too much money has already been wasted in failing public schools.

“If charter schools fail, parents have the option of removing their kids from that charter school and putting them in a charter school that does better,” Folsom said. “A lot of the people in Detroit have no way out, so the more alternatives they can get in there, the better.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

Revised School Code, State of Michigan: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(qiql4445ku5vsrfrc2w5aa2i))/mileg.aspx?page=getObject&objectName=mcl-380-502

Michigan HB 5765:

“Diplomas Count 2008,” Editorial Projects in Education Research, June 2008: http://info.detnews.com/pix/2008/pdf/Michigan.pdf