In Detroit, It's Charter Schools Gone Wild

In this March 15, 2011 photo, students study at the African-centered Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit. T
In this March 15, 2011 photo, students study at the African-centered Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit. Timbuktu has about 350 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and is one of nine Detroit Public Schools-authorized charter schools. The school district’s emergency financial manager is proposing turning the operation of 41 academically challenged schools over to charter operators to help cut into a $327 million legacy budget deficit. (AP Photo)

Writing in The New York Times, Kate Zernike documents a charter school disaster being perpetuated on Detroit children and families. It is a story of phony "choice," not better schools. It is a warning of what can happen to education in the United States if the charter school movement is allowed to grow unchecked and unregulated.

Zernike's opens with a focus on the experience of one family. Damian and Omar Rivera attended a series of Detroit charter schools as their mother tried to offer them a brighter future. Damian, the older son, initially was enrolled at a charter school across the street from their home. He earned top grades and dreamed of becoming an engineer, until he was accepted into a special program at the University of Michigan where he discovered he knew far less about almost everything than similar students from Detroit public schools. Ana Rivera pulled her son out of the charter and sent him to a Catholic school, where charter school A's suddenly turned into Catholic School D's. Damian is now a discouraged learner.

According to Zernike, so many national for-profit charter school chains entered the Detroit "market" that in some poorer communities "it easier to find a charter school than to buy a carton of milk." Detroit has a bigger percentage of students enrolled in charter schools than any U.S. city except New Orleans, whose public school system collapsed and was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. The Detroit charter companies compete to attract students and government pay-outs by offering "cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles," but the promise of a better education is illusory.

There are many villains in the Detroit education debacle, but the main ones are a former Michigan governor, the state legislature, and of course, the for-profit charter school companies. The force behind the 1993 state charter school law was Republican Governor John "Free Markets" Engler, who not coincidently was an opponent of teachers' unions. Engler wanted schools that were publicly financed but independently run. In theory, choice would lead to innovation; at least that was his theory.

Michigan decided to let virtually anybody set up charter school and actually paid school districts a bonus to promote the program. For-profit companies saw the law as their chance to cash in and they rapidly moved into the Michigan school market. Currently for-profit chains operate 80% of the state's charter schools, a much higher percentage than in any other state. The companies also became major political lobbyists in Michigan with support from some of the state's most powerful Republican Party donors.

Market dogma produced all kinds of absurdities. In 2011, the state legislature ended caps on the number of charter schools. Michigan currently has over 200,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools. Twenty-four of those new charter schools are in Detroit and 18 charter companies with existing schools that were performing poorly were allowed to expand or open new schools.

Because of pressure from lobbyists it became impossible to agree on a system for evaluating charter schools so the legislature decided to come up with a quality control system after the cap was lifted. The law actually eliminated the requirement that the State Department of Education issue annual reports that monitor charter school performance. It also granted for-profit charter companies special tax right-offs.

Zernike quotes Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of the civic group New Detroit. According to Romney, when Detroit went charter, "The point was to raise all schools. Instead, we've had a total and complete collapse of education in this city."

Let's make sure Michigan and Detroit are not the future of education in the United States and that these policies can be reversed before more children are deprived of an education.

From July 8-10, educators, parents, and activists will rally in Washington, DC for three days of action in defense of public education. Featured speakers include author Jonathan Kozol, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and Diane Ravitch. On July 8 there will be a People's March for Public Education and Social Justice. Save Our Schools is organizing a conference for July 9 to be followed by a July 10 Coalition Summit and organizing session. The program for the rally and meetings includes full, equitable funding for all public schools; safe, racially just schools and communities; community leadership in public school policies; professional, diverse educators for all students; child-centered, culturally appropriate curriculum for all, and no high-stakes standardized testing.

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