Gretchen Whitmer cast herself this week as an ally to Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as his district jockeys for position in Detroit’s competitive education landscape, saying she would push for increased regulation of charter schools in Detroit if she becomes governor of one of the most charter-friendly states in the country.
“We have to have a Detroit-specific strategy,” she said on Monday. “The governor and his Republican legislature failed at giving some real comprehensive oversight to what’s happening in the city of Detroit. I want to be a partner to Dr. Vitti, to Mayor Duggan, to Detroit families.”
Her comments crystallized the stakes of the Nov. 6 election both traditional and charter schools in Detroit as they compete for teachers and students.
Whitmer said she’d seek to close low-performing, for-profit charter schools. “Let's raise up our school districts,” she said. “Let’s make sure … that that we hold schools accountable, that we shut down schools, particularly for-profit charter schools, that are not delivering good results.”
(A spokesperson for the Whitmer campaign clarified that her comment about closing schools only referred to charter schools.)
Michigan’s charter school laws, shaped by the advocacy of Education Secretary Betsy Devos, offer low barriers to entry that have proved enticing for school managers that operate at a profit. The charter movement in the state has grown during the last three gubernatorial administrations.
Whitmer’s comments came during a recorded interview with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, which includes Chalkbeat, Bridge Magazine and four other nonprofit news outlets.
For-profit schools make up about 80 of charter schools in Michigan, according to a 2013 study by Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University. While Whitmer focused her criticisms on those schools, she raised red flags about the performance of charter schools on the whole.
“It’s not the for-profit or not-for-profit model,” she added. “It's the fact that charter schools are not having better outcomes than traditional public schools.”
Whitmer’s remarks ranged beyond charter schools as she laid out an ambitious education reform agenda, promising that if elected, she would deliver shakeups at every level of education in Michigan.
Whitmer re-upped her support for changing the way K-12 education is funded in Michigan, lending her voice to a chorus of experts who have called for a system that places added weight on students with higher needs.
“So the same child in a wealthy district costs less to educate than if you've got that child in a high-poverty district and that's why I really support the weighted foundation formula.”
At the prekindergarten level, Whitmer renewed her promise to focus on access to early childhood education, saying: “We're going to ensure that every one of us has the skills we need to get into high wage jobs. “You start with universal early childhood education.” She said “stop the raid on the school aid fund” to pay for the initiative.
Billions of state dollars have been diverted from K-12 education to community colleges and public universities since 2009. If this practice were stopped, the roughly $800 million left over each year for schools would not be enough to cover all of Whitmer’s education plans.
And she promised to provide Michigan students two debt-free years of community college, a project she claimed would cost the state $100 million annually, though she also didn’t spell out specifics about how it would be funded.
Whitmer said she would close loopholes to fund her proposals, but did not specify which loopholes when asked.
This story was written and shared by Bridge Magazine reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit.