Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
In this morning’s Detroit Free Press, Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson wrote about the status of charter schools in the city of Detroit. His conclusion? There has been very little progress and we still have a long way to go. I could not agree more.
After setting forth some background information, Henderson reminds his readers that the Detroit Free Press published an eight-day series on charter schools in late June 2014. He points out that most Detroit charter schools are still performing poorly, and bemoans the fact that the Governor and Legislature have not yet implemented the ideas put forth by the Free Press last summer. In particular, Henderson writes:
The aim of the Free Press’ series on charters wasn’t to halt Michigan’s charter experiment. Far from it. Indeed, the Free Press Editorial Board, historically, has been among the most consistent champions of the idea that innovations, such as those injected by charter schools, are an important part of education reform.
The series was intended to inspire the governor, Legislature and Department of Education to apply some structure and discipline to the system of charter schools in the state. The goal is to make charter schools live up to the potential of their own conceit: that they could make schools in Michigan better for all kids.
A year after the Free Press report, there isn’t much to report in the way of progress.
This commentary makes crystal clear—as many of us have known for some time—that the Detroit Free Press editorial board has wholly bought into the Arne Duncan/Michelle Rhee/Bill Gates/Betsy DeVos idea of education “reform.”
As I have written previously, the term “reform” is a chameleon word that takes its meaning from the context in which it is used. In the field of education, “reform” is frequently used as a code word to signal the dangerous agenda of increased standardized testing, one-size-fits-all instruction, evaluating children at younger and younger ages, and shifting the blame for systemic societal problems to classroom teachers. More and more, the word “reform” also signals something else: profit-driven schools. It is a word that does not belong in the lexicon of a supposedly progressive newspaper editor.
Henderson opines that, in the beginning, charter schools were full of promise and were embraced as a novel solution to educational challenges in urban areas. This may well be true. But recall that the idea of charter schools was vastly different in the mid-1990s than it is today. In the early days of the movement, charter schools were sold as local centers of innovation that would have the freedom to experiment while still operating within the confines of the public school district. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a charter school in Michigan that follows this model. Modern charter schools are typically authorized by far-off institutions, exist as stand-alone entities, and have absolutely no ties to the local school district. Nor are they community-run catalysts for innovation as originally envisioned. More and more, for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs) are opening identical copies of the same, cookie-cutter charters all across America. Why? It’s more cost effective that way.
Today’s charter schools are moneymakers. Operating charter schools is a big business, and classroom learning and instruction matter little to stockholders. Instead, maximizing corporate profits is job number one. To stay in business and succeed financially, a for-profit EMO that operates multiple charters, perhaps in a number of states, does not need to concern itself with the education being delivered in any one of its several schools. By and large, these charter schools are in poor, urban areas. Rather than striving to be centers of excellence, these charters simply need to remain minimally more attractive to parents and students than the local public school. And as long as they are able to do so, they will continue to attract students and the accompanying state funds.
How do these charter schools sell themselves as more attractive options? First, since they are often wrongly perceived as private or nongovernmental entities, they are poorly understood and not subject to the same degree of public scrutiny as traditional school districts. This effectively permits charters the flexibility to bend or dodge many of the rules that apply more strictly to traditional public schools.
For example, it has been widely reported that charter schools have higher suspension and expulsion rates, deliberately tossing out low-achieving pupils, special-needs pupils, or other students who are more expensive to educate. Similarly, at a recent forum on public education that I attended, a former employee of a for-profit charter school in Detroit recounted the manner in which the administrators at her school had discouraged the enrollment of students with special needs by creating false “waiting lists” and informing parents that there was no space for their children.
Secondly, and on a related note, charter schools can control the size of their student populations. Therefore, it is not surprising that charter schools and their supporters frequently tout their ability to offer smaller class sizes than traditional public schools.
Another way in which charter schools gain a competitive advantage over traditional public schools is by taking advantage of unclear laws. The Detroit Free Press, itself, has reported that many charter schools believe that they are exempt from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act and state laws requiring financial disclosure. The Free Press has also explained that Michigan’s virtually nonexistent legal framework allows EMOs, board members, and other interested parties to engage in faithless self-dealing, particularly with respect to the purchase and sale of buildings and real estate. In sum, it can no longer be denied that charter schools and traditional public schools in Michigan operate according to very different sets of rules.
And of course, for-profit EMOs have professional marketing departments that traditional public schools simply can’t afford. These marketing departments are in the business of selling the perceived advantages of charter schools—whether actually true or not. EMO marketing departments also force traditional public schools to divert money into their own marketing and advertising campaigns in order to compete for students and dollars.
This brings me to the real problem with Henderson’s column. His dissatisfaction with charter schools in Detroit is partially of his own doing. When Henderson led the charge to endorse Governor Rick Snyder last fall, many Democratic and progressive voters saw the handwriting on the wall. As I was leaving a Big Boy restaurant in early November, an older, reliably Democratic voter told me, “If the Free Press is endorsing Snyder, it must be a done deal.” She explained that she was disillusioned; she informed me that given the endorsement of Snyder by the “liberal” Detroit Free Press, there was no reason for her to even vote.
Any college student majoring in political science can tell you that (1) the top of the ticket drives voter turnout, and (2) voters don’t show up when they believe the result of the election is a foregone conclusion. By endorsing Snyder, Henderson and his staff on the Detroit Free Press editorial board unwittingly suppressed the Democratic and progressive vote across the state. How many left-leaning voters saw the Free Press endorsement and concluded—whether correctly or incorrectly—that their votes wouldn’t matter? I know at least one who did.
Without a doubt, things would be different if our government in Lansing valued educating children more than corporate profits. Perhaps some of the recommendations put forward by the Detroit Free Press last summer would already have been implemented. Or perhaps those recommendations never would have been needed in the first place.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s current Governor and Legislature don’t value education over profits. Nor are they fiscal conservatives in any real sense of the word, for they are driven by a desire to see private business make money at public expense. Quite simply, until we have a new government in Lansing, we will not have charter-school reform. And Stephen Henderson is smart enough to know it. Waiting for Michigan’s current Governor and Legislature to address the Free Press’s concerns about charter schools is like waiting for pigs to fly.