Worries about charter school expansion in Detroit were on the tongues and faces of many parents when the NAACP brought its national listening tour on a charter school moratorium to the city in March.
Beneath it all was the suspicion - if not a stubborn conspiracy theory - among some Detroiters that state-mandated school closings and the appointment of Michigan’s charter school champion Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary could spark mass chartering of the traditional public schools in Detroit.
That seems unlikely - for now.
Detroit has the second-highest percentage of students attending charters in the nation, but a state law that reorganized its school system last fall severely limits charter school growth in the city.
Only charter authorizers accredited by a “nationally recognized accreditation body" can open new charter schools in Detroit. While the law does not define “nationally recognized,” Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University are the only two authorizers in Michigan with accreditation, giving them a monopoly on new charter schools in Detroit. By law, not even Detroit Public Schools Community District, or DPSCD, the only authorizer headquartered in the the city, can charter new schools in Detroit.
And officials for both universities say they have no plans to open many more charters in Detroit.
Amid debates about charter school quality, the NAACP has proposed a moratorium on all new charter schools nationwide. Detroit was the fifth of seven cities the civil rights organization planned to visit to take public testimony. Detroit has 97 traditional public schools, 12 schools in the state reform district and more than 100 charter schools, making it second only to New Orleans, where 92 percent of children attend charters compared to 53 percent in Detroit, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
All this comes as the state is wrangling with enforcing or repealing the controversial law that could close 38 schools by June, 25 of which are located in Detroit. Gov. Rick Snyder has delayed a decision on the closures until May.
In Michigan, public school entities - school districts, community colleges and universities - can authorize charter schools. Over the past two decades since the advent of charter schools, authorizers have not sought accreditation. In fact, CMU and GVSU are among the first authorizers in the nation to get accredited, both earning the designation prior to the new law in Detroit.
The accreditation process for authorizers takes one to two years through AdvancED, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that accredited both GVSU and CMU. The rigorous process involves site visits, interviews and other evaluations to ensure quality charter school oversight.
Accreditation doesn’t mean charters are high quality, but it does certify that schools comply with the law and expectations in their charter contracts.
AdvancED says it accredits 34,000 schools and school systems serving more than 20 million students in the U.S. and 70 other nations.
EdTrust Midwest, a nonprofit education policy and advocacy group, graded Michigan’s authorizers last year, giving CMU a “C” grade and GVSU a “B” grade regarding the quality of their oversight of the charter schools each authorizes.
Amber Arellano, executive director of EdTrust Midwest, said the requirement that Detroit authorizers be accredited “really does put the spotlight on CMU and Grand Valley to produce not only good oversight, but higher quality in their schools. They have prided themselves on being quality authorizers,” she said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group, said accreditation is important to hold authorizers to a standard of quality.
“Over time, any authorizer that has a significant number of charters and wants to continue to do that will probably pursue accreditation because it identifies them as being competent,” he said.
However, even if more authorizers get the accreditation and the legal ability to open new charter schools in Detroit, the city won’t see a significant increase in the number of charter schools because student enrollment declines citywide show there’s no need for more, Quisenberry said.
With 72 charter school buildings statewide - 25 in Detroit - GVSU has been the most active authorizer in the city in recent years. But it has no plans to charter schools en masse in Detroit, said Tim Wood, associate vice president for charter schools at GVSU. Also, there are few if any national charter school management companies that are willing to come to Michigan to take on the task of operating schools in Detroit, he said.
Last fall, GVSU opened one charter in Detroit and plans to open two more in the city this the fall, he said.
GVSU will focus on placing new charters in education “deserts,” or neighborhoods that lack an adequate number of schools. In Detroit, for instance, the Brightmoor neighborhood has about 7,000 school-age children and only five elementaries and one high school.
Tim Wood, head of the charter schools at Grand Valley State University, said the authorizer plans to open two more charters in Detroit in the fall.
“We’re coordinating with Skillman (Foundation) and with the mayor’s office to place schools where there’s a need,” Wood said.
CMU authorizes 62 charter schools, including nine in Detroit, and will not open any new charters in the city this year, said Brad Wever, a spokesman for the charter school office at CMU.
Joining the club
Since the law changed, more authorizers have applied for accreditation. One charter school authorizer will likely get a decision in June on its accreditation while two more are expected to apply for the designation this spring, according to Mariama Jenkins, a spokeswoman for AdvancED.
Kisha Verdusco, director of charter schools for Detroit schools, said the district is now seeking accreditation through the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and expects a determination by fall.
That could allow the district to charter new schools, continuing its practice in recent years of opening specialized charters that serve alternative populations such as schools for students who are pregnant, bilingual or in juvenile detention.
Kisha Verdusco, director of charter schools for DPSCD, said any new charters the districts opens in the future will likely focus on underserved students who have special circumstances.
An upside of the new law that limits charters is it could ensure higher quality charter school oversight, said Walter Cook, data and researcher manager with Excellent Schools Detroit, a group that rates Detroit schools.
The downside is the law is vague and has loopholes, he said.
For one, it doesn’t define a “nationally recognized accreditation body,” Cook wrote in an email to Bridge.
What’s more, the law only restricts charters within the city’s boundaries. It doesn’t stop authorizers from opening schools just over the border and recruiting Detroit students, Cook said.
“If an unaccredited authorizer wants to open a new (charter school) in Redford or Southfield, there is nothing in this legislation that restricts them,” Cook pointed out.
More important, he said, the law may slow the quantity of charter schools, but does not address quality in the classroom.
Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, told NAACP officials something similar when she testified at the group’s town hall meeting in Detroit.
The problem with education in Detroit, she said, is the city has experienced “more choice, but less quality.”