Academic journal article Education Next

Fixing Detroit's Broken School System: Improve Accountability and Oversight for District and Charter Schools

Academic journal article Education Next

Fixing Detroit's Broken School System: Improve Accountability and Oversight for District and Charter Schools

Article excerpt

DETROIT IS A CLASSIC STORY of a once-thriving city that has lost its employment base, its upper and middle classes, and much of its hope for the future. The city has been on a long, slow decline for decades. It's difficult to convey the postapocalyptic nature of Detroit. Miles upon miles of abandoned houses are in piles of rot and ashes. Unemployment, violent crime, and decades of underinvestment have led to a near-complete breakdown of civic infrastructure: the roads are terrible, the police are understaffed, and there is a deeply insufficient social safety net.

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There are new federal funds and private investment being directed to Detroit's renewal. Bankruptcy proceedings are finally under way, and a new mayor wants to make a fresh start. But it's hard to see how a renaissance can occur without making headway on the public schools. Detroit parents still have very few high-quality options, despite a number of different reform interventions, including putting a state-appointed emergency manager in charge of the district, pulling the lowest-performing schools into a statewide turnaround district, and allowing a significant number of charter schools to operate.

In January 2014, as part of a multicity study, researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) met with a dozen parents in Detroit to learn about their experiences with education in the city. What follows is one of many similar stories we heard.

Ms. Gordon (not her real name) is a lifelong Detroit resident. Her 11-year-old son will enter middle school in the fall of 2014, and she is anxious about how to find and choose his next school. He has not had an easy time in elementary school; he struggled academically and was often in trouble for his behavior. Over the years, she has tried to talk to the principal and her son's teachers, but it always felt as though no one was listening to her concerns or willing to work with her to address them. Now, as she's looking for a middle school, she wants her son to have afresh start and a chance to get the academic and social support that he needs. A friend suggested she look at the charter school that her daughter attends. The school sounded interesting, but Ms. Gordon decided it was too far away for her son to travel there safely on his own. Even if she could find a safe route, she was disappointed to read in a parent guide [published by Excellent Schools Detroit] that the kids at the charter school weren't doing any better than those at the low-performing neighborhood middle school. In fact, few schools looked like good options, even though there were many to choose from. As she faced spring enrollment decisions at the time we talked to her, she felt she I was no closer to finding a school that would be a good fit for 1 her son. She expressed frustration and despair, recounting her s efforts: "It just feels like you have to fight for your kids every day in this this city, because no one else will."

Today, Detroit is a "high-choice" city. Families choose from among charter schools, magnet schools, district schools, and schools in nearby districts. In Michigan, public universities, community colleges, intermediate school districts, and all traditional K-12 districts, called "sponsors," can authorize an unlimited number of charter schools in Detroit and elsewhere in the state. The city's charter sector expanded rapidly between 2010 and 2013; 32 new schools opened, a 42 percent increase in just those three years, bringing the total number to 109. By percentage of total enrollment, Detroit has the third-largest charter sector in the country, after New Orleans and Washington, D.C. As of the 2012-13 school year, nearly as many children attend charters (39, 353) as attend Detroit's district schools (49,172) (see Figure 1). Other Detroit families, around 14 percent, take advantage of Michigan's interdistrict choice law that allows them to send their children to nearby suburban schools. …

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