Archives for category: Detroit

A new study in Michigan finds that the proliferation of charter schools has undermined the fiscal viability of traditional public schools.

David Arsen, a professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University, discovered that school choice and especially charters were diverting resources from public school districts, leaving them in perilous condition.

“Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why: Michigan’s Story” asserts that “80 percent of the explained variation in district fiscal stress is due to changes in districts’ state funding, to enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and to the enrollment of high-cost special education students.”

In other words, the fiscal failings of DPS that we just addressed had less to do with poor spending on the part of district — though we’re sure there was some of that — and more to do with statewide policies, such as those that promote competition, that put the traditional district at a disadvantage.

“Overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent,” Arsen explained to education blogger Jennifer Berkshire (author of the website EduShyster) in a recent interview.

To read Jennifer Berkshire’s illuminating interview of David Arsen, open this link to her website.

Here is a portion of her interview:

David Arsen: The question we looked at was how much of this pattern of increasing financial distress among school districts in Michigan was due to things that local districts have control over as opposed to state-level policies that are out of the local districts’ control: teacher salaries, health benefits, class size, administrative spending. We also looked at an item that the conservative think tanks are big on: contracting out and privatization. We found that, overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent. We looked at every school district in Michigan with at least 100 students and we followed them for nearly 20 years. The statistics are causal; we’re not just looking at correlation.

EduShyster: There’s a table in your paper which actually made me gasp aloud—which I’m pretty sure is a first. I’m talking, of course, about the chart where you show what happened to Michigan’s *central cities,* including Detroit, as charter schools really started to expand.

Arsen: We have districts getting into extreme fiscal distress because they’re losing revenue so fast. That table in our paper looked at the central cities statewide and their foundation revenue, which is both a function of per-pupil funding and enrollment. They had lost about 22% of their funding over a decade. If you put that in inflation adjusted terms, it means that they lost 46% of their revenue in a span ten years. With numbers like that, it doesn’t really matter if you can get the very best business managers—you can get a team of the very best business managers—and you’re going to have a hard time handling that kind of revenue loss. The emergency managers, incidentally, couldn’t do it. They had all the authority and they cut programs and salaries, but they couldn’t balance the budgets in Detroit and elsewhere, because it wasn’t about local decision making, it was about state policy. And when they made those cuts, more kids left and took their state funding with them.

EduShyster: As you followed the trajectory of these school districts, was there a *point of no return* that you could identify? A tipping point in lost enrollment and funding from which they just couldn’t recover?

Arsen: When we looked at the impact of charter schools we found that overall their effect on the finances of districts statewide was modest. Then we looked to see if there were nonlinear, or disproportionate, impacts in those districts where charters enrolled very high and sustained shares of resident students. And then the results got huge. We saw very significant and large impacts of charter penetration on district fund balances for different thresholds, whether there were 15, 20 or 25% of the students going to charter schools. That was really striking. At every one of those thresholds, the higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances. They’re big jumps, and they’re all very significant statistically. What’s clear is that when the percentage gets up to the neighborhood of 20% or so, these are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances.

State officials in Michigan approved a new emergency plan to rescue Detroit public schools from its crushing debt, most of which was accumulated since the state took control of the district.

The Detroit Free Press reports:

Michigan’s Emergency Loan Board on Monday approved measures to implement a $617-million financial rescue and restructuring plan for Detroit’s public schools, over the vocal objections of elected school board members and others who attended the meeting in Lansing.

The board approved borrowing to retire or refinance debt, plus the transfer of assets from the old Detroit Public Schools to a new Detroit Public Schools Community District.

There were shouts of “Shame!,” “Jim Crow” and “Black lives matter” as the three board members left an auditorium at the Michigan Library and Historical Center through a back exit.

Critics say the plan treats Detroit public school students as second-class citizens because they would be the only Michigan public school students who could be taught by uncertified teachers. They also say much of the debt addressed by the plan was rung up while Detroit schools were under state control.

“We believe that the state owes the district considerably more, and we have asked continuously for an audit,” said Lamar Lemmons, president of the elected school board.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, has called the legislation “an historic plan to save Detroit schools – and the rest of the state – from a disastrous and unprecedented bankruptcy,” adding “this incredible investment by Michigan taxpayers will erase decades of debt and set the new district up for success.”

This confirms our worst fears about charters. Its conclusion: Detroit parents have many choices but education in that embattled city is in a state of collapse. The politicians, civic leaders, and big money bet on charters instead of focusing like a laser on improving the public schools and services for children and families. That bet turns out to be a disaster for the children of Detroit.

Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.

While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.

Detroit now has more students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse, than Detroit’s traditional public schools.

“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”

Detroit is now the poster child for the failure of charters. Next time a friend asks you why you don’t like competition among schools for students, tell them about Detroit.

Two teachers plan to raise money to pay for a fiscal audit of Detroit public schools, which the legislature refuses to pay for. We often hear legislators call for school accountability. Who will be held accountable for the financial mess in Detroit? More than 40,000 children need trachers, small classes, the arts, clean and healthy schools, supplies, libraries, social workers, guidance counselors, psychologists. Where did the money go?




“DPS teachers Nina Chacker (mobile 3134075446) and Zack Sweet (mobile 2163084460) will be staffing a Lemonade Stand at Eastern Market this Saturday from 9 am to noon to raise funds for a financial audit of DPS under Emergency Management. The stand will be located at the gazebo on Russell Street.



“An amendment introduced by Michigan Representative Brian Banks to the House package of bills restructuring DPS had called for an audit of DPS finances since 2009, but was defeated along party lines last week despite Republican concerns about various fiscal anomalies under a series of Governor-appointed Emergency Managers. Ellen Cogen Lipton, former House Education Committee Minority Chair, has estimated that the teachers will need to raise at least $500,000 through lemonade sales to afford the fiscal accountability that teachers are calling for. Teachers have expressed dismay at recent statements by Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that the district might be unable to meet its contractual obligations to DPS staff, and believe funding the fiscal audit will help taxpayers and the Michigan legislature better understand where all the money has gone.



Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni
Associate Professor, Curriculum Studies
Wayne State University”

Nancy Flanagan, a veteran educator, now retired, writes about the contrast between the bankrupt Detroit public schools and a scandal-tainted charter school four hours north in Traverse City, called Grand Traverse Academy in Michigan.


We have read many stories about the desperate financial condition of Detroit, a condition made worse by inept state-appointed emergency managers.


Flanagan writes:


“The Michigan legislature hasn’t decided yet whether to let Detroit Public Schools thrive. The House is currently tinkering with bills that cut back funding even further, allow uncertified teachers in DPS, remove DPS teachers’ collective bargaining rights, force teachers to re-apply for their jobs and eliminate an elected school board. In addition, DPS teachers got a tongue-lashing from several members of the legislature.


“Yes, this is the same DPS whose teachers had to shame their appointed leaders into doing something about the dead rodents, mold and wavy gym floors, earlier this year. It’s the same DPS that’s had four “emergency managers” in the past seven years. And it’s the same DPS system where 14 administrators appear to be headed for prison or plea bargains for taking kickbacks from a supply vendor.


“I don’t know a single DPS teacher who doesn’t provide essential supplies (including snowpants) for the children she teaches, out of her own funds. Imagine learning that principals in your district have been pocketing thousands of dollars out of the supply budget while you’re stopping at the dollar store on the way home, just to make it through the next day. They have taken to social media to plead their case, because nobody else seems to be listening…”


Drive four hours north to the Grand Traverse Academy, and you will find a beautiful charter school that collects $10 million in public funds.


GTA has a messy scandal on its hands. The charter operator borrowed $3.5 million from the school’s funds. Does anyone care? The media ignores the mess. The charter operates for profit, and these things just happen in business. The operator, an optometrist, said he had a pedagogical method based on “visual learning,” and his charter board had other optometrists who supported his ideas. The operator has since been convicted of fraud and tax evasion, but the board does not seem overly concerned.


Flanagan wonders:


“Detroit and Flint, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were the first charter frontier. It was easy to persuade your average citizen to think: Well. You know, Detroit. They had to do something.


“Next step, however: Build gorgeous new buildings and use public money to fracture solid, well-run public educational systems. For private profit.


“Ask yourself: Why are the papers and the policy-makers all over those protesting teachers in Detroit–while the white-collar crime in charter world goes virtually unnoticed?”







A bizarre story from Detroit. Teachers are holding a “sick-out” to protest the fact that they won’t be paid for working. They have been told that they should return to work it there is no guarantee that they will be paid. The teachers have mortgages, rent, normal expenses. They don’t understand why they should be expected to work without pay. City officials, who do get paid, say the teachers are selfish.


Teachers are not volunteers. Why doesn’t the state of Michigan take responsibility for funding the schools?

Allie Gross has been reporting on the misadventures of the charter industry in Detroit in the Metro Times.


This week, she wrote about a charter school, University Academy, that fired eight teachers without any explanation or cause. When teachers have no union, the school doesn’t need to give any explanation about why teachers are fired.


Last fall, Allie wrote about the $3.5 million that Michigan doled out to charter applicants who never opened a school.


The latter article includes a useful summary of the U.S. Department of Education’s very costly investment in the charter industry:


In 1995, four years after the first charter school law was enacted, the U.S. Department of Education started its Charter Schools Program grant. The general gist of the initiative was state education agencies could vie for funding and then host their own competitions for sub-grantees who wanted to create or expand charter schools.


The goal of the grant is two-pronged: 1. It aims to expand the number of “high-quality” charter schools across the nation and, 2. It seeks to evaluate the effects of charter schools. The first aim is achieved through three types of grants that the U.S. Department of Education asks state education agencies to offer: planning grants, implementation grants, and, lastly, dissemination grants.


That first year the department gave out just over $4 million; today it doles out upward of $125 million. According to the Department of Education, the federal government has spent more than $3 billion on the charter sector in the past 20 years.


Michigan received $23 million from the program in 2007 and in 2010 decided to apply again, this time asking for $44 million. By this point the state had 240 charter schools, and as the application explained, there was an expectation of growth. Just a few months earlier lawmakers decided to lift the cap on the number of charter schools university-authorizers could sponsor.


This predicted expansion was highlighted in MDE’s application, as was the goal of ensuring authorizers would have high quality operators to choose from when they weren’t burdened with a cap.


In 1995, the same year that the Charter Schools Program grants started, Michigan opened its first charter school, a National Heritage Academy in Grand Rapids. Today, NHA, which was started by billionaire J.C. Huizenga, is the state’s largest charter school operator, with 48 different schools across Michigan. This multi-site, for-profit model has proliferated in Michigan — currently, 79 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit charter management organizations — and cracking this monopoly was a stated goal in MDE’s application. Specifically Michigan explained how “planning funds” could help level the playing field and empower grassroots community groups with charter school ideas.



The Detroit School Board has filed a federal lawsuit against Governor Rick Snyder. 


The Detroit school board has filed a federal lawsuit against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, alleging that his state-appointed emergency managers have failed to adequately address the district’s financial troubles, crumbling school buildings, and academic deficiencies.


The suit seeks class-action status on behalf of roughly 58,000 students who have attended classes in the district since 2011. That total includes students enrolled in the state’s Education Achievement Authority, a state-run district that operates the worst Michigan’s lowest-performing schools.


The suit notes the district’s declining enrollment and an ongoing scandal that has more than a dozen former administrators facing charges in a bribery and kickback scheme. Also named in the suit are at least three of the emergency managers that have run the Detroit schools; the district has been under state oversight since 2009.


“Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law and related practices were used to compromise and damage the quality of education received by all [Detroit public schools] students with life-long consequences in the name of financial urgency,” the lawsuit claims.


The suit also names former Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett. Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in 2015 to an indictment charging her with receiving money and benefits from her former employers in exchange for steering no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to the firms. Federal investigators are also scrutinizing contracts awarded during her time in Detroit, where she worked as chief academic officer.


Snyder’s emergency manager law has faced renewed scrutiny this year as the district teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, and teachers and parents have become more vocal about their distaste for the law.


It is fair to say that state control has been a disaster for the Detroit Public Schools. Every “reform” trick has pulled, and every time the children are the losers.


The text of the plaintiffs’ brief is here. 


The best line in the brief:


The Emergency Manager Law is predicated on the concept that a local financial crisis is due to the inability of local officials to address the problem. In fact, beginning in 1999 the State took over the management of the DPS which was functioning financially ‘in the black’ and with its student body performing at a level on average with the school districts of the entire state of Michigan and, in the seventeen years since, have turned the district into a virtual financial hell-hole. 


The Emergency Managers appointed by the Governor, the suit alleges, drove the district into financial disaster with their profligate spending and unwise decisions.

Mercedes Schneider, relentless investigator, here analyzes a proposal to turn Detroit public schools into an all-charter district.


Detroit is drowning in debt, most of it incurred since the state took control of the district. In particular, state-appointed superintendent Robert Bobb added $300 million in debt during his brief tenure.


The district’s schools are in terrible physical condition, unfit in many cases for children or adults.


The reformer proposal: fix everything by turning every school into a charter. Open and close charters at will.


Only a corporate reformer could come up with a plan that completely ignores the needs of students and teachers. Students need stability and security, not churn. Teachers need an environment conducive to teaching and learning, one where they get to know their students and can plan ahead and work together as a team.


Mercedes checks out the fellow who made this dumb proposal. It turns out he is affiliated with the Mackinac Center, Governor Rick Snyder’s favorite policy tank, which enjoys funding by the Koch brothers.


He is also associated with groups sponsoring charters in Ohio. Mercedes documents the multiple embarrassments of the scandal-ridden charter sector in Ohio.


Why would anyone want to inflict disruption on the children of Detroit? It is not for their benefit. Who does benefit?


Jan Resseger, a social justice activist in Ohio, writes here about John Kasich and his lack of knowledge of his own education policies. In one of the most recent presidential debates, Kasich boasted about the rebirth of Cleveland public schools and pretended that he knew how to fix the Detroit public schools.


As Resseger writes, he is wrong about Cleveland and Detroit. His policy has been to disinvest in public schools and to rely on charters. Ohio has some of the worst charters in the nation. His plan for Youngstown was hatched behind closed doors, and it follows the ALEC script of a state takeover, followed by privatization.


Kasich implied that mayoral control might fix the public schools in Detroit, but mayoral control hasn’t helped the public schools of Cleveland. Of course, he didn’t know that Detroit had mayoral control for a few years, but the voters vetoed it. That mayor, if memory serves, subsequently went to jail for something he did wrong.


Kasich plays the role of the adult among a bunch of squabbling kids. But when it comes to education, he is as clueless as the rest of them.


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