Charters chafe at commission oversight in Detroit

MACKINAC ISLAND — Proponents of a nearly $720 million debt restructuring plan for Detroit Public Schools and lobbyists for Michigan’s charter schools agree that the city’s schools need to be more accountable when it comes to performance.

But they disagree that the proposed Detroit Education Commission, a citywide task force that would oversee public and charter schools in Detroit, is the vehicle to do it.

The proposed commission was the topic of a panel debate at this week’s Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. Panelists included John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge and a co-chairman of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren; and Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which lobbies on behalf of charter schools. Crain’s Detroit Business publisher Mary Kramer was the moderator.

The governance issue remains one of the biggest sticking points in the Legislature’s efforts to reduce the school district’s estimated $515 million in operating debt.

A plan the Senate approved in March — the one favored by Gov. Rick Snyder, Rakolta and the Detroit schools' coalition and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, among them — would give Detroit’s mayor authority to appoint a commission with the power to decide where to open and close schools.

The Senate’s plan also would split DPS into two districts. The existing district would exist until the debt is repaid, while a new Detroit Community School District would be created to handle teaching and all other operations.

The House, meanwhile, approved a separate package favored by Michigan’s charter school industry, which does not include the commission. It also includes tougher language aimed at stopping teacher sick-outs that have made headlines in recent months.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) has said he worries the commission would restrict charter schools. The House stayed in session in Lansing this week to work on issues including DPS and the 2017 fiscal year budget.

Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said via email that lawmakers are close to an agreement on the DPS legislation, and Cotter’s stance on the DEC hasn’t changed. He would not disclose details of the talks.

Quisenberry said charter authorizers’ opposition stems almost entirely from the commission concept, which he called an expansion of city authority into public school management.

“It’s additional governance, not new governance,” Quisenberry told an audience during the Wednesday morning session, hosted by the Detroit-based The Skillman Foundation.

Afterward, he told Crain’s and Bridge in an interview: “What I have confidence in is it will interject a different level of politics” into K-12 education, given that its members will be politically appointed and the fact that its merits are being argued.

Michigan already has a state school reform office to close schools, he said, and that office could work with charter authorizers — commonly public universities — to open new ones.

Yet concern about the DEC is misplaced, Rakolta said, given the fact that the Senate bill also limits it to a five-year time frame with the possibility of a five-year extension.

“It’s basically an experiment,” Rakolta said, who said the commission is necessary to improve academic outcomes for all students, regardless of whether they attend a public or charter school.

Rakolta said no one has offered a viable alternative that could reach the same school performance results without the commission in place. He prefers the Senate legislation, introduced by Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart.

If it doesn’t pass, Rakolta said he predicts “enormous student loss this October” and policymakers will continue to be debating Detroit schools’ restructuring next year.

"This is just a delay tactic," he said. "We need to fix this, and we need to fix it now.”

Hansen, who offered closing remarks, said the commission’s real purpose is to create a master plan that can make sure K-12 schools exist in Detroit neighborhoods that need them into the future.

He urged policymakers to come to consensus.

“We need good schools. We need opportunity, and we need to get this debt out of the way so that everybody can be successful,” Hansen said. “This is not about charters. This is not about DPS. And we need to quit having these adult arguments” and make sure kids get the education they need, he said.

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Thu, 06/02/2016 - 9:56am
As with pretty much everything that goes on in Lansing, there appear to be few who can see the forest for the trees. What is best for the students? Do we need an oversight commission? What we've been "doing" hasn't appeared to work. Should teachers be required to work, even if there is no money to pay them, the rats rule the hallways and the ceiling may collapse in the next rain storm? I think most folks would say "No". Have Charter Schools lived up to their hype? Hard to get any apples-apples statistics, so who knows. Lots of questions, few answers and unlikely that "our" representatives in Lansing are up to the task
Tim Sullivan
Thu, 06/02/2016 - 10:02am
Charter schools are Public School Academies. They seem to forget the public part. Their money to operate comes from the public (taxes) and should be subject to the public's rules and regulations. Caesar's coin means Caesar's rules. An Educational Commission that is set up to close poorly functioning schools or making sure the schools are located where they are needed is not an undue impediment to their business. Requiring them to children within a specific catchment area or territory, is not antithetical to public education. It's essential to it. This, of course, assumes their business is educating children. And business is the right word as we all for-profit entities to run public school academies. It is not the responsibility of the State to ensure for profit school operators make money. It is the State's responsibility to see that the children whose education is paid for with taxes collected from the public actually get educated and that the schools are located within a reasonable distance of the children, especially in an urban area. If this is too much of an impediment for them, they have two options that I can see. Option one - foreswear public money and become a private school. Their complaints seem to center on wanting to avoid what Mr. Quisenberry called "additional governance" so they can be, in effect, a publically funded private school. This is something my reading of the Michigan Constitution simply does not permit. Option two - work to repeal the Blaine Amendment language in the Michigan Constitution and replace it with voucher language so the parents/guardians of the children decide where the children are educated. Both options will permit the public school academies to function as they seem to want to do - free of effective public scrutiny. But holding the children of Detroit hostage to desire of public school academy operators to spend the peoples' money as they see fit, it not an option anyone can afford. And the fact that some in our state legislature seem intent on doing just that, is beyond appalling.
james mckimmy
Thu, 06/02/2016 - 11:01am
Why do we listen to the lead lobbyist for the charter schools? He is not an educator and the charter school results are less than stellar. The charter movement has contributed a great deal to the economic woes of the DPS. Jonn Englers advocacy for competion from charter schools has not brought the promised utopian results of Free Trade.
Marilee Greene
Thu, 06/02/2016 - 12:52pm
Amen! Low performing charters are all over the state. They do not for the most part have publicly appointed school boards and very little scrutiny. By putting the word Academy in the school title, the parents are duped into thinking they are getting a better education for their children. They are not. In my city, the 2 operating Charter Schools have poorer scores than the public school down the street. What is the reasoning behind letting these schools stay open and subsidized by our tax dollars? Profit of course.
Thu, 06/02/2016 - 6:33pm
Charter schools have not lived up to the hype behind their development . I believe they suck a lot of money out of the public school system with a minimum return in education . I have not read of many great successes in the charter schools in Michigan .
Thu, 06/02/2016 - 8:19pm
“It’s basically an experiment,” Rakolta said, who said the commission is necessary to improve academic outcomes for all students, regardless of whether they attend a public or charter school. Just how would the commission improve academic outcomes for all students? What insight or talent would the commission have that a school board wouldn't have? Why is it necessary to have a commission in order to improve results? Does he mean to say that the solution to our educational problems has all along been the creation of commissions? How simple. Why haven't we thought of that before? "Hansen, who offered closing remarks, said the commission’s real purpose is to create a master plan that can make sure K-12 schools exist in Detroit neighborhoods that need them into the future." Why would that be beyond the capability of a regular school board? Isn't that part of their responsibilities? Admittedly, there have been instances of the Detroit school board and/or emergency managers failing to do that, -- consider Brightmoor -- but why would we expect a commission to do any better? Lindsay VanHulle says that all involved " agree that the city’s schools need to be more accountable when it comes to performance." That would indicate they have not been sufficiently accountable in the past. But what is proposed? More of what has failed in the past. Instead of a school board or emergency manager, we are now to have a commission. Why would it be any more successful? It seems the parents have done more than anyone to hold the schools accountable. Supposedly, more than half of Detroit's students are now attending charters or schools of choice in the suburbs. That is accountability. Detroit's parents have decided that Detroit's schools are significantly inferior to other options. If Detroit Public Schools are incapable of responding to that kind of competitive pressure, perhaps they just can't do any better. If the commission isn't included, " Rakolta said he predicts “enormous student loss this October” . Why? Is it because the public schools can't offer a competitive quality of education? What is his objective? Keeping students in Detroit Public schools or giving them the best education available? What is our priority, the welfare of individuals, or the preservation of an institution?
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 8:16am
A publicly elected school board only has authority over traditional public schools. One of the greatest challenges in Detroit is the location of schools. A board controlling DPS has NO say over where charters locate. This is the purpose of the DEC. To bring sanity back to the location of schools. The depopulation of Detroit and Schools of Choice have created a nightmare of logistics (increased costs) when it comes to serving the needs of the students and families. Also, the legislation that passed the House only commands the closing of DPS schools if they perform poorly. There is NO accountability attached to charters...none. Tax money thrown into a black box and disappeared. People love to hate DPS, but the AFT requested a forensic audit and the GOP controlled legislature said no. Again...the union requested a forensic audit and the GOP politicians who are bought and paid for by DeVoss and the charter lobby said no. BTW...where is the "Adequacy Study"? Its done and they keep delaying its release.
Sun, 06/05/2016 - 1:16am
The DEC had nothing to do with accountability. It is all about limiting the competition for DPS schools. DPS schools will continue to lose students as long as there is better alternatives for parents to choose. The DEC was going to limit their choices. In spite of the bullying by the Detroit blob, the House saw through the DEC and it looks like the Senate is going to join them.
chester marx
Sun, 06/05/2016 - 11:54am
Our tax dollars being used with no, or little, oversight. For profit schooling should be vetted. And the standards should be higher than the public institutions, as they are an experiment.