Quality Control Is Long Overdue in Detroit

Detroit is a city desperately in need of help in educating its children. And there are many from all over the country who desperately want to help them to do just that. But until the city is allowed to create a system to ensure that the choices put before parents will be even minimally adequate, there is little to no incentive for national funders and major charter school networks.

“There are lots of folks who wouldn’t want national money, I suppose,” says CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, Dan Varner, in a recent Chalkbeat piece. “But the bottom line is there’s a reason they don’t show up. And the reason has everything to do with the high level of dysfunction in Michigan and Detroit.”

Chalkbeat describes the situation as a vicious cycle. And it seems what the piece is really describing is a city that needs an education traffic cop to serve as an arbiter of quality.

There is no question that the abundance of for-profit charters exacerbates the educational dysfunction that is keeping schools with proven track records from putting down roots in Detroit.

Let’s be real. Poor performing for-profit charter schools will work hard to avoid having to compete with the likes of Kipp and other successful charter networks. Why would anyone want the highly successful school next door showing that they can do better than you as a non-profit?

Beth Hawkins, writer in residence at Education Post, highlights just how bad it is in a recent piece in The Atlantic:

In reality, the operators of Detroit’s charter schools almost never close them because of poor academic performance. So even a school where no child is achieving at grade level can continue enrolling new students. And the higher-education institutions that authorize them often have financial incentives to keep the schools open; charter networks often give authorizers a percentage of their funding. In some states in exchange for that revenue charter authorizers are encouraged to provide support and accountability—but not Michigan, where the trustees of the colleges doing the authorizing are largely appointed by the governor.

“Not even the governor has the authority to shut down chronically low-performing charter authorizers in Michigan,” Education Trust-Midwest noted in a report released last week, “despite the fact that such authorizers serve nearly 145,000 Michigan children—and their charter schools take in more than $1 billion taxpayer dollars annually.”

So the current and overwhelmingly for-profit charters do whatever they can to ensure that the landscape remains hostile to prospective and successful non-profit charter networks. If you are a quality school operator, no one is going to help you find a building. No one is going to help you find kids. No one is going aid you in identifying the students and families who are underserved. And your rivals will push to make sure there is no formal way to even get the word out to parents about great work happening for kids in other cities.

Detroit is the poster child for why strong accountability systems are essential when it comes to educating children. And they are a strong argument for why for-profit charter schools do not belong in the education space.

If Michigan wants Detroit’s schools to be about student outcomes, they must create a system that is accountable, a system in which there is a traffic cop whose job is to ensure quality. Then, and only then, will funders and national charter networks have the confidence needed to invest in Detroit, a city that desperately needs them and a city they’re desperate to serve.


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