How 25 years of charter schools have changed Detroit

By: - February 12, 2019 4:21 pm

Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a charter school, enjoys strong student standarized test scores. | Ken Coleman photo

Charter schools have been a part of Michigan’s educational landscape for the last quarter-century. While they still inspire intense debate to this day, there’s no doubt that charters have had a significant impact in the state, particularly in Detroit.

It was 1994 when charters first came on the scene in Michigan.

A lot has changed in that time. Michigan has gone through four governors and the country has had the same number of presidents. Hundreds of state lawmakers have come and gone. And laws regarding charter schools have undergone some significant changes.

That was the backdrop for “The Detroit Charter School Movement for Better or for Worse” on Jan. 12 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Panelists sought to examine the history of the charter school movement in the state’s largest city — and its impact on Detroit Public Schools Community District, the state’s largest district.  

Organized by Stacey Deering, a Wayne State University Ph.D. candidate, the panel consisted of Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, vice president of the Detroit Board of Education; Edwynn Bell, principal of Detroit Collegiate Prep, a charter high school in Detroit; and Dan Quisenberry, president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Helen Moore |Ken Coleman photo

“Charter schools have a system used to divide us,” said longtime Detroit parent activist Helen Moore, who attended the meeting. “We used to be a unified school district.”   

But education choice advocates say that charters provide parents with much-needed options, like Michigan native and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end,” she said in a 2015 speech.

So what’s really going on with charter schools in Michigan?

In the first part of our series on 25 years of charter schools in the state, the Advance gives you the contours of the current debate, anchored both in the history of education choice and the laws governing schools today.

‘90s reform idea

Michigan’s first charter legislation was passed into law in December 1993 during the former Gov. John Engler era. But that was ruled unconstitutional. A subsequent bill was passed and signed into law in 1994.

No single individual has been a bigger supporter of school choice and charter schools as Betsy DeVos, a member of the powerful West Michigan family known for building Amway and donating heavily to Republican candidates.

A former state GOP chair, DeVos has put her money where her mouth is when it comes to promoting and expanding charter schools. She has worked with her husband, Dick, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006, on several efforts, including the failed ballot proposal for school vouchers in 2000.

DeVos founded the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), but she hasn’t limited her interest in school choice to her home state. She has been a board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and and headed the All Children Matter political action committee playing in state elections. DeVos also served as board chair of the Alliance for School Choice.

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has donated millions to both charter and Christian schools. Dick DeVos founded a charter school, the West Michigan Aviation Academy, at his wife’s suggestion.

In her current role as U.S. Education secretary under President Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos has continued to boost charters from that perch. The Advance has reported on her efforts both here in Michigan and D.C.

Paul DeWeese

During the 1990s, the education choice movement also was championed by Teach Michigan, led by Williamston physician Paul DeWeese, who later was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1998 as a Republican.

Last year, DeWeese unsuccessfully ran for a Lansing-based state House seat as a Democrat. His support for charter schools was a main line of attack against him in the Democratic primary.

As reported by the Detroit Free Press, DeWeese said in 1993:

“We need to try new approaches. Charter schools give professional educators the opportunity, the flexibility to take risks, to try new ideas, to adapt and to reach out in ways that we find difficult to do under the current public schools structure.”

Teach Michigan sold the education reform idea to Engler — the former GOP governor who has been in the news after resigning last month as interim Michigan State University president after a stormy tenure — and members of the Legislature as a response to what they saw as failing schools.

In an Oct. 5, 1993, address, Engler called Michigan schools “monopoly of mediocrity” and declared:

Interim President of Michigan State University and former Michigan Gov. John Engler, July 24, 2018 | Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“With charter schools, you get away from the one-size-fits-all mentality that has imposed a deadening uniformity — and all too often a mediocrity — on so many of our public schools.”

Although the state’s largest teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association, fought the idea, charter schools have had supporters on both sides of the aisle.

Tom Watkins, a former Gov. James Blanchard administration appointee who later was state superintendent of Michigan schools under Gov. Jennifer Granholm, has studied charter school issues for decades. In a 1995 column for the national publication Education Week, he notes that while charters were opposed by teachers’ unions, the idea did have bipartisan support:

“I have pointed out to these questioners that of the first eight states to pass charter-school legislation, four had Democratic governors and four Republican. More impressively, in those first eight states, 13 of the 16 legislative bodies involved in the charter-school decision were controlled by Democrats. Hey, even President Clinton, the ‘New Democrat,’ supported the student-focused value of charter schools in his 1994 State of the Union address.”

Buzz Thomas

Indeed, former President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, was a school choice advocate. And Democratic lawmakers in Michigan, such as former state Sens. Buzz Thomas (D-Detroit) Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park), reached across the aisle on education choice issues.

However, the politics of the debate have shifted in the Democratic Party in the last few years. When U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) recently declared for president, union activists sounded the alarm about his pro-charter record and the liberal magazine, Mother Jones, noted that he has a “Betsy DeVos problem.”

And more than a few eyebrows were raised this week when Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tapped former charter school executive Doug Ross to serve as her senior advisor for “Michigan Prosperity.”

Recent reforms

Since 1994, some charter schools have opened and remained part of the landscape; others have come and gone.

One of them is Pembroke Academy, which just opened in Detroit last fall. Others, like Delta Preparatory Academy, closed last October about one month into the school year. Board members at Delta Prep cited declining enrollment as the chief factor in the decision to shut down.

Delta Preparatory Academy, a charter school, closed in October 2017 | Ken Coleman

Meanwhile, charters have expanded in Michigan in recent years, especially under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder.

In 2011, the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature removed the cap on the number of charters. It also discontinued the practice of requesting an annual report from the Michigan Department of Education that analyzed charter schools performance.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The Act allowed for up to 500 charters in Michigan by 2014, up from the limit of 250. It resulted in an increase in charter schools up to 298 operating during that 2013-14 school year. By the 2014-15 school year, there were 302 charter schools operating in Michigan.

As a result, Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country. And as noted by a 2017 New York Times investigation, schools here enjoy some of the least state oversight.

Detroit experience

There’s no place that charter schools been revered as they have been reviled than Detroit.

Supporters have cited years of declining test scores and the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s troubled history of racial discrimination, segregation and a legacy of us-versus-them factions and politics.

Nikolai Vitti

In fact, when Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the post of DPSCD general superintendent during spring 2017, he vowed to school board members, if appointed, he would take on the competition.

“I say this not to make a statement of bravado, but we are going to put charter schools out of business,” Vitti said. “And why and how is because we’re going to offer a better product.”

Throughout 1995, the first year of the charter school law’s existence, about 5,500 students attended 40 charter schools operated throughout Michigan. Eight of them were located in Detroit.

Under Michigan law, a public school academy, commonly known as a charter school, is “a state-supported public school under the state constitution, operating under a charter contract issued by a public authorizing body.”

Today, there are 294 charter schools operating in Michigan serving more than 150,000 students, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

About 70 such schools are located in Detroit proper. Dozens more are located in Southeast Michigan, including Hamtramck and Highland Park, cities located within Detroit’s boundaries.

Some charter schools are authorized by Michigan universities, including Central Michigan University, Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University. Even DPSCD authorizes six charter schools.

Others are managed by for-profit firms like Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies, which operates almost 50 charters throughout the state.

Michigan leads the nation in schools run by these operations, according to research by Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron. They have come under fire for their lack of financial transparency and excessive overhead costs, as uncovered in 2014 Detroit Free Press investigation.

“Michigan is still an outlier,” Miron said. “No state comes near us when it comes to privatization.”

What’s more, about 51,000 school-aged children who live in Detroit attend charter schools.

DPSCD’s enrollment is at about 52,000 students, down from 178,000 in 1995, the year the current charter law went into effect. However, since 1995, more than 200 charter schools have closed for one reason or another, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

A 2016 report from Education Trust-Midwest, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization, found 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan scored below the state average in math and reading proficiency tests. However, there are charter schools in Detroit that outpace DPSCD schools routinely.

Casandra Ulbrich, president of the state Board of Education that’s elected by voters from across the state, believes that charter schools have been given a pass by both the board collectively, as well as the state Legislature.

Casandra Ulbrich

“Michigan is among one of the least-restrictive environments for charter schools in the country, and unfortunately, this is by design,” said Ulbrich, a Democrat. “Instead of improving the oversight of charters, the Legislature has enacted further laws to codify these practices, such as lifting the cap on university authorized charter schools, allowing for-profit entities that lease facilities, often to themselves, to avoid paying property taxes, and greatly expanding cyber charters despite questionable results.”

Ulbrich said she also doesn’t think charter schools have been held to same standard as traditional public schools as it relates to transparency.

“Charter schools in Michigan are often run by for-profit management companies through a ‘sweep contract’ which means that they essentially control the schools entire budget,” she said. “Once the budget is transferred to the for-profit company, spending details are no longer ‘public.’  In addition, many of these companies are also tied to real-estate holding companies that own the properties in which the school is located, and thus the school ‘leases’ the building from the same company that oversees the budget.”

Agreement on funding

During the Detroit town hall conversation, the focus centered on four major themes. Funding is was the first one — and it’s an area in which traditional public and charter schools largely agree.

Quisenberry, the president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, suggested that traditional and charter school officials, supporters and advocates need to come together to create a blueprint.

“Legislators are us,” said Quisenberry. “With term limits and people coming in and out of the Legislature, most people don’t know the answers to the questions [we] are asking. Neither do legislators.

“I think that it is incumbent that those of us in education to get past the adult arguing, politics and our silos and say: ‘Here’s what Michigan needs. I’m not going to argue for my agenda, but here’s what Michigan needs’ and educate politicians about those things.”

Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, the vice president of the Detroit Board of Education, also took issue with how the Legislature has made policy over the last several years.   

“You can’t say that you care about education, but you are constantly draining dollars away from education when you know that we (DPSCD) don’t have enough to begin with,” she said.

Regulation and oversight

There were three areas of profound disagreement at the forum, starting with state regulation. Education advocates debated whether charter schools held to a different set of rules than traditional public schools.

“That’s a myth,” Quisenberry responded.

He said that the original idea of allowing charter schools to operate by waving some state regulation was never implemented.

“Every law that applies to a [DPSCD] school applies to a charter public schools,” Quisenberry added.

However, Peterson-Mayberry and other DPSCD officials believe that’s not true.

Here’s what the law says. When it comes to adopting a core curriculum, for example, charter schools, by law, are held to the same standard as traditional public schools.

Angelique Peterson-Mayberry

“Local education agencies and public school academies are required to adopt a model core curriculum per Section 380.1278 of the Revised School Code,” according to the Michigan Department of Education.

The curriculum should follow the core content standards adopted by the State of Michigan. Various sections of the Revised School Code require that the written curriculum be part of the charter contract itself.

However, as it relates to charter schools, “[W]aivers may be requested for sections of law or rule where the State Superintendent of Public Instruction has the legal authority to grant such a waiver,” according to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).

“Two examples of such authority are the seat time requirement and after Labor Day start requirement. Also, some MDE offices have the waiver programs for administrative fees related to their areas of specialty (For example, Food and Nutrition Services). Requests typically go to the program office. If recommended for approval, it will go to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for approval.”

Then there’s the issue of governance.

Peterson-Mayberry, a city resident who was elected by Detroit voters, pointed out that traditional public schools are governed by locally elected board members. So she believes that charter schools should operate the same way.

Detroit Town Hall Meeting on impact of charter school. Shown are Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Dan Quisenberry, Angelique Peterson-Mayberry and Edwynn Bell | Ken Coleman

“[With charter schools], people are appointed. Some board members have no ties to the school or the city itself and so accountability is diminished,” she said.

Quisenberry countered that some charter schools “on average” enrolls students from as many as 12 different school district geographic boundaries such a set-up would not work effectively.

Here’s what the law says. “Charter school board members are public officials that have sworn a constitutional oath of office in Michigan,” according to the Michigan Department of Education.

“Each board member undergoes a selection and appointment process established by the charter school’s authorizer before being named by the authorizer’s governing board. Boards must have representation from the local community, and board members must be citizens of the United States.”

Special needs students

And the final issue is admitting students with special needs.

For years, traditional public schools officials and their supporters have argued that charter schools “cherry pick” their students and shun special needs students because those kids are more expensive to educate.

“You can’t pick and choose the rules that want to follow,” Peterson-Mayberry said.

However, charter school Principal Edwynn Bell said about 33 percent of his 125-person student body are special needs students. “I know people, personally, who work for [DPSCD] and under the table will not take special ed kids,” he said.  

Quisenberry argued that most charter schools in Detroit have a comparable number of special needs students with traditional public school students.

“There are educators in all of our systems who may not be doing what they are supposed to,” Quisenberry said.  

Except as prescribed in law, a charter school may not be selective in its enrollment process. It may not screen out students based on disability, race, religion, gender, test scores, etc. It may, however, predetermine the ages, grades, and a number of students it will serve.

Gretchen Whitmer

A random selection process must be used if the number of applicants exceeds the school’s enrollment capacity. Section 380.504 of the Michigan School Code requires that public school academies must have a “random” lottery and can only give preference to the relationships listed in the law such as family members, family members of school staff, matriculation agreements, etc.

Education is expected to be a major theme in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first State of the State address Tuesday night, as the Advance reported, and in her first budget in March. All panelists at the Detroit event will probably like her call for more education funding.

But it’s safe to say that issues like charter school regulation and oversight will crop up in debates at the state level — and probably sooner than later.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.