Is There an Answer for Michigan Schools?

There may be hope yet for Michigan’s 38 “priority schools” threatened with closure by the state School Reform Office earlier this year. According to letters sent to families and administrators by the SRO in January, the identified schools, originally slated to close as early as June 2017, have ranked academically in the bottom five percent for the last three consecutive years, based on measurements such as state exam performance and graduation rates. 25 of the 38 marked for closure are in Detroit: 16 in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, eight in the Education Achievement Authority and one charter school. Yet a new proposal from Michigan Superintendent Brian Whiston may provide hope for many of these schools, as districts seek to take back local control, assess their own closure needs and agree to work in a rigorous partnership plan with the state in hopes of reform.

The SRO, seized under the direct control of Gov. Rick Snyder in 2015, originally stated that the decision to save any of the schools would be based “solely on whether or not the closing of these schools will cause unreasonable hardship to the students enrolled.” The subjectivity of this assessment has raised alarm among parents and administrators alike who question how “unreasonable hardship” will be defined. With high performing schools at a shortage throughout the state, better answers are not around the corner for students and families. Many of the suggested closures are surrounded by other low-performing “priority schools.”

A spark of encouragement was found when the promised judgment, thought to be announced by this month, was deferred through May. On Feb. 23, Gov. Snyder asked the SRO to wait on this decision and collaborate with the Michigan Department of Education to consider new ideas. “The entire team at the School Reform Office has worked diligently to analyze data, visit schools and review potential options, but we need to do more before any final decisions can be made,” Snyder said. “Any action we take will have long-lasting consequences and we need to take the time to get this right.”

Many saw hope in Snyder’s stay, including the Detroit caucus of legislative Democrats who intensely lobbied against the school closings and whose meeting with Snyder was followed by the postponement. “I think that’s awesome; it’s actually what we asked for,” said Detroit caucus chairwoman and State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit). “We were very forthright, and he was as well. Gov. Snyder made it clear he wants a robust plan to retool and relaunch stronger academic programs for the schools on the closure list. He urged our caucus to rally our local stakeholders to get a plan in place expeditiously, and that’s what we’re taking steps to do.”

Rep. Fred Durhal III (D-Detroit), secretary of the caucus added, “Having an open dialogue with the governor is an important first step in ensuring that the voices of Detroit’s parents, students and teachers are heard.”

Concern also followed the extended decision in regards to parents planning for the upcoming 2017-2018 school year. “Most in-demand schools in Detroit will have gone through probably two, if not three, application periods by May,” said Maria Montoya, the director of communications and strategic partnerships for Enroll Detroit, which works with Detroit parents on enrollment issues. “That means parents will likely find their kids on a waitlist if they apply.”

But on March 1, Superintendent Whiston, in collaboration with Gov. Snyder, sent a letter to eight school districts, all of whom are on the potential closure list, outlining a partnership model for schools and the MDE to work together. According to the letter, districts have 60 days to enter into a partnership agreement with the MDE, which would allow them to maintain “total control” of their schools while receiving outside assistance from partners, including, but not limited to, the local school board, intermediate school district or a charter authorizer, parents, foundations and community leaders. In exchange, the SRO has agreed to delay further actions such as closures for a period of 18 months while progress is assessed. It would “give the partnership model an opportunity to be successful,” Whiston wrote.

Although many schools are encouraged by the proposal from the State, there are those who feel Snyder and the MDE are “circumnavigating the law” with this plan. State Representative Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw Township), who chairs the House Education Committee and the appropriations subcommittee on school aid, was quoted in the Detroit News, saying he thinks the administration is “skirting” requirements of the Detroit schools bailout and an older law that created the School Reform Office and empowered it to close struggling schools.

Not every priority school on the list is expected to remain open, though through the agreement, authority to make this initial decision is cautiously handed back to the districts. Whiston says his plan will encourage districts to get tough, closing schools or overhauling staff where it is needed as they determine their district size. Whiston estimates four to six schools may still close this summer, “but the decision would be made at the local level,” he said. “I do think that we can’t have failing schools,” he told reporters at the Detroit News. “We can’t put children in schools that are not meeting their needs for a long period of time.”

Sadly, failing schools are not an anomaly in the city of Detroit or the state of Michigan. According to a new research study by University of Michigan professor Brian A. Jacob, which reviews scores of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Michigan ranks dead last in proficiency growth since 2003. This study echoed concerns reported by The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research organization, released last year which stated, “The state’s educational performance – already among the weakest in the U.S. – is falling further behind the nation. Michigan fourth-graders are now ranked 41st in the nation for fourth-grade reading levels, down from 28th in 2003 and 38th in 2013. If the state does not dramatically improve its educational practices and policies, new projections show Michigan will be ranked 48th by 2030.” One way the state has tried to address failing public schools has been to implement charter schools, a publicly funded but privately run institution. In 1993, Gov. John Engler signed the Michigan Charter School Law, permitting charter schools throughout the state. The original grassroots movement aimed at exploring creative ways to improve and innovate public education at a local level. This was quickly exploited by a free-market feeding frenzy which has produced an overwhelmingly corporate charter landscape with little to no accountability within its sector. By 2012, legislation allowed the number of charter schools in the state to be raised to 300 and in 2015, the cap was lifted completely. Michigan as a state, and Detroit as a city, now houses more charters than anywhere in the nation except New Orleans, whose public school system was replaced by statewide charters after Hurricane Katrina. According to research by Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, Michigan also leads the nation with for-profit charters, with 79 percent of Michigan charter schools operated by private education management companies or EMOs. “I’m baffled by that.” says Tracie Varitek, former Pre-Education Coordinator at Henry Ford College. “There’s nothing I can even tell you that’s good about a for-profit school. I have no idea why anyone would think that’s a good idea. Every profit should go back into the student and into the school.”

The results on performance from charters is muddled at best. Research by Stanford University released in 2013 shows charter schools in Michigan are performing at higher levels of reading and math than the public schools, particularly in Detroit. To some, this may be a hard sell, as performing better than the worst rated school district in the nation is not a endorsement of success. The report also illustrates a small decline in growth of special education students in the same area. School of choice lobbyists, like the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, claim that charter schools and other publicly funded private options such as vouchers give underprivileged children a leg up. However, a 2015 report by Education Trust-Midwest, which graded 16 charter authorizers in Michigan, states that 20 percent of charter schools opened in Michigan since 2011 are run by authorizers who have been consistently failing students for years. The report says that “Among Michigan charter districts with significant African American populations, two-thirds perform below Detroit Public Schools – the worst performing urban district in the nation – in math, according to the 2013 state assessment results for African American students. And that with 70 percent low-income students and 60 percent students of color in Michigan’s charter schools, this is a civil rights issue.”

The report proposes Michigan’s first performance-based accountability system for charter authorizers and claims that “Presently no one – not even Governor Rick Snyder – holds authorizers accountable for their academic performance, despite the fact that their authorized schools serve nearly 145,000 Michigan children, and charter schools take in more than $1 billion dollars of taxpayer dollars annually.” Groups like The Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren agree that much more transparency and accountability is needed in the charter sector. This group, formed in 2014, brought together former adversaries, the state teachers union and pro-charter groups, with community organizations and business leaders and ultimately made recommendations of several best practices for education in the city across the board. These recommendations included a stricter oversight commission who would decide the placement of schools in the city and have authority to open and close all schools based on need and performance. In the end, an oversight committee did not make it into the $617 million bailout of Detroit Public Schools and many blame that on charter lobbyists Dick and Betsy DeVos, who urged state legislators to “oppose any effort to create a new layer of bureaucracy and limit educational choice in the form of a Detroit Education Commission.” The billionaire couple spent $1.5 million opposing proposals to improve oversight of charters in Michigan while seeking to expand schools of choice around the weeks of the bailout. Detroit did receive the money needed to avoid DPS bankruptcy along with some new accountability systems and the creation of a newly elected school board, but, ultimately, all final decisions and the power to govern its city’s own educational landscape remains in the hands of the State.

What will the outcome be for Michigan schools? Will the new partnership plans with the MDE bring substantial reform to public districts? Will charters undergo any true sense of accountability and work with local communities to offer better results? Or will a third option, a change in state legislation to offer school voucher programs and education tax credits be the catalyst for renewal? Over 20 states have embraced a version of state-subsidized private education, primarily aimed at low-income families, failing school districts, those with disabilities and those living in rural areas with less school choice. Betsy DeVos is not alone in her belief that the choice of a child’s education should lie in the hands of parents and that “there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” Charlotte Mason Community School of Detroit is a local example of just such a school. Operating on a “shoestring budget” since 2002, based primarily on donations of committed individuals, the K-8 Christian liberal arts school located in Midtown Detroit, describes their efforts in the fight for educational justice by offering an education that respects children as whole persons and is accessible to families regardless of economic status or zip code. The non-profit charges tuition based on what is needed to operate and meet the needs of its students, but works with families to reach a contribution level that they can afford. Principal Ann Pattie says “Vouchers would be a game changer for CMCS. Public funding would relieve the pressure to fundraise, making our school more financially stable and allowing us to serve more children. Vouchers would give families an alternative to the public school options in Detroit. It would give them the power to choose.”

Critics of schools of choice question who may be negatively affected when public dollars are used for students to attend private schools and raise concerns about separation of church and state, particularly schools that have any religious basis like CMCS. The Michigan Constitution bans the use of public money for private or religious institutions. Another concern raised by critics of schools of choice is that reduced support for public education further segregates communities and leaves behind families who are unable to get their children to and from schools of choice.

“Every time we say this will be the answer,” says Varitek of Henry Ford College,”we take funds and ideas and attention from the real problem and the potential we could do in the public school. We just shift the problem. For some kids, the charter school, the voucher program will work. There is a group that it will help. But, whenever you compare a charter school, private school, voucher, homeschool to public school this is comparing apples to oranges. The students at the charter school where I taught, even those who had struggles, I cannot even imagine, they had someone in their life - a parent, a grandparent, an aunt, a sibling, someone who cared enough. They had someone to get in their application, to drive them to and from school, someone who had the capacity and thought it was really important. There are lots of barriers, transportation, logistics, even I struggle to get all my kids to school in the morning. It’s the kids who don’t have anyone like that in their life, they are the ones left in public school. The ones who have the most need, they are the ones we are taking away from.”

There is no one easy answer for improving Michigan schools and we will likely continue to experience further trial and error. But, the issue has gotten the attention of Lansing, and many hope that elected officials, educators and communities will work together toward meaningful and lasting solutions.

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