News Story

Why Can't Detroit Go to all Charter Schools Like New Orleans?

It took a hurricane, but New Orleans has improved academically

On a Sunday news show in 2010, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan caused a minor controversy by calling Hurricane Katrina the “best thing” to happen to New Orleans public schools.

"This is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest,” Duncan said. ”I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'We have to do better.' "

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans transformed its public education into an all-charter school system.

Duncan later said he regretted his wording but not his message: "I was simply trying to point out how impressed I am, the remarkable commitment and the sense of urgency."

In 2016, Detroit is the nation’s public education disaster area. Detroit Public Schools had the worst academic performance of any major urban district in the country, as measured by a 2015 urban-focused edition of the National Assessment of Education Progress. It held the same spot in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

The financial situation of DPS has been equally dismal. The district has been in debt since 2007-08 due to its inability to spend less money than it takes in for routine operations, and is now on the brink of bankruptcy.

Is now the time to blow up the conventional urban public school district model for Detroit and replace it with the New Orleans’ all-charter format?

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, an organization supported by the Skillman Foundation, has pitched a plan to bail out the district. It calls on policymakers to revise governance at the status quo school district, but not replace it with a different model. The coalition did get a presentation on the New Orleans all-charter experience, but Skillman Foundation Chief of Staff William Hanson said that listening was as far as the coalition went.

“But there is no New Orleans or citywide charter model that the Coalition ever supported or seriously considered,” Hanson said in an email. He continued:

“We supported — and expect — what’s in the Choice Is Ours report: A thriving public charter sector and a thriving traditional public sector; the state fixing the debt it ran up over many years of DPS oversight; common high standards for all schools; and a central coordinating entity we called the Detroit Education Commission that would set performance standards for both sectors, site schools according to demographic need, close chronically poor-performing schools in both sectors, and foster communitywide involvement in schools from parents, students, business, civic groups.”

Charter schools have worked in New Orleans according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a respected source of research on the subject. A 2013 CREDO study found that the typical student in a New Orleans charter school received the equivalent of an additional four months of learning in reading and five months in math when compared to peers in conventional public schools.

CREDO found similar results when it looked at Detroit charters, where children gained the equivalent of a few weeks to several months of additional learning compared to their peers in DPS schools. The Stanford researchers concluded that Detroit’s charter schools could “serve as models to other communities.”

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said Michigan has established two precedents for dealing with failed school districts: Dissolve them and assign their schools to neighboring districts (the path taken in Buena Vista and Inkster), or “charterize” them (the path taken for Muskegon Heights and Highland Park).

“When districts fail as badly as DPS, the only two options used so far in Michigan have been to dissolve the district or replace it with all charter public schools,” Naeyaert said. “We’d support either of these options in Detroit, because DPS has clearly forfeited their right to educate children.”

In October 2015, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies commissioned a Denno Research poll of 600 Detroit residents. It found that 75 percent wanted more choice and 42 percent thought charter schools made education better while just 24 percent thought charters made education worse.

“Detroiters have told pollsters they need more educational choice,” said Ben DeGrow, the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Making a system like this work rests squarely on ensuring families maintain the ability to vote with their feet, and that schools are directly accountable to them for success.”

Defenders of the status quo unionized public school districts do not support charter school expansion. The vast majority of charter schools are not unionized.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, didn't return an email sent to her office seeking comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.