Supposed To Be For the Children

Confused priorities on Detroit schools

A March 19 Detroit Free Press story on the struggling Detroit Public Schools featured DPS advocates who blamed the district's woes, including an exodus of students and the money they carry from the state treasury, on charter schools.

The article included this: "But others say that even small enrollment losses could lead DPS back down the path of financial ruin, particularly if there is no mechanism in place to slow the growth of new charter schools and the expansion of existing charters, which are contributing to the district's enrollment declines by siphoning off students."

After citing and quoting some of these voices the article summed up their perspective: "Even as DPS has seen big losses, charter schools have flourished, despite performing only slightly better overall than DPS. More than half of the school-age children in Detroit attend charters in the city or in surrounding suburbs. And while the number of new charters opening in the city has slowed, nothing has stopped existing charters from expanding and taking in more students. It is their growth that has left DPS teetering."

ForTheRecord says: Starting in 2009 and proceeding every other year since, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has included DPS in its report card on the country's major urban districts. In every one of those report cards — 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015 — Detroit Public Schools had the worst academic performance of all.

The record of Detroit charter schools looks different, however. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) is widely considered the nation’s leading source of independent research on charter schools. A 2015 CREDO study found that students in Detroit charters receive the equivalent of a few weeks to several months of additional reading and math learning each year compared to children in DPS schools. The report noted that Detroit’s charter schools could serve as a model to other communities.

The contrast between individual Detroit district schools and charter schools stands out in a chart created by Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project, which shows each school’s latest state standardized test score data. With some exceptions on both sides, the scores reveal the particulars of what the NAEP and CREDO reports describe: Detroit charters are generally outperforming DPS schools, suggesting that they serve Detroit children better.

Some of the interests involved in the Detroit school district issue see a problem when parents move their children out of the nation’s worst-performing school district and into a charter school. But others, including those parents, see instead a solution.