News Story

Group at Fore of Detroit School Preservation Effort Has Mixed Record

Well-funded Excellent Schools Detroit favors bailout

Detroit Public Schools has experienced massive student flight and its teachers have conducted illegal strikes. It also is considered by to be the worst urban school district in the country by the federal government and is immersed in a corruption scandal involving bribes and kickbacks to top administrators. It will run out of money at the end of this school year.

That is not the picture of the district’s future painted six years ago by an organization that has played an active role in defining that future.

Excellent Schools Detroit was formed in 2010 with the goal of transforming DPS into one of the top public school districts in the country. The nonprofit has received millions of dollars in donations from organizations such as the Walton Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Skillman Foundation and Kresge Foundation. In its latest filing with the IRS, it reported an annual budget of $4.94 million for 2014.

In 2010, ESD stated that within five years, it would open “40 new high-quality school options.” It would close or replace at least half the school programs in the city and attract and develop enough high-quality school leaders to transform Detroit district schools. The vision described transformed “new schools,” many in existing Detroit Public School buildings, some possibly in new buildings. It would also turn around failing schools so that by 2020, the operation would have “ensured that every student in Detroit is in a quality school.”

Going on six years later, none of that has come to fruition. In its biannual report card for 2009, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found DPS to be the country’s worst major urban district. That was the year before ESD was founded. Notwithstanding the organization's activities since then, the Detroit district was also rated the nation’s worst in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

The state has also tried to turn around failed Detroit schools by placing them in a form of receivership called the Education Achievement Authority, and tried to reform the district by appointing a series of emergency managers. Neither the managers nor the EAA has ever closed a school because it was a failure academically.

Yet of the 98 DPS elementary, middle school and high schools, 54 received a grade of F in an independent school report card that is adjusted for the socio-economic status of students’ families – even though the adjustment favors low-income districts like Detroit by giving them credit for the additional challenges their students face. The district’s schools have done even worse on a ranking compiled by the state that does not adjust for student backgrounds.

In 2010, Excellent School Detroit also stated one of its missions was to get the Detroit high school graduation up to 90 percent. It’s not there yet, though graduation rates have climbed from 59.7 percent in 2010-11 to 77.3 percent last year, a gain of 17.6 percentage points.

The nonprofit also reviews Detroit schools every year and produces a scorecard that measures a school's quality.

In 2010, ESD stated it would “build public support for reducing the barriers to opening new schools, especially working with government agencies and community organizations to help secure funding and facilities for all schools.”

“All schools” sounds like it includes alternatives to regular district schools, including charter schools.

But more recently, the organization’s CEO has commented favorably on a Detroit school bailout package passed by the state Senate that would give Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan the power to appoint a Detroit Education Commission with a virtual veto on opening any new charters in the district. This is the same Mayor Duggan who in 2014 approved restrictions on selling closed school buildings to charter school managers. The city had acquired dozens of buildings and other property from DPS in lieu of payment for its delinquent bills.

Supporters of ESD give the organization credit for helping lay the groundwork for an entity called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, many of whose members have connections with ESD. The coalition has also pitched its own plan to reform Detroit’s public schools.

Excellent Schools Detroit did work, is working, will work,” said Bill Hanson, the chief of staff of the Skillman Foundation, which has been involved in both ESD and the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. "ESD was key in getting us where we are today.”

Hanson also praised the Senate-passed bailout bill and its Detroit Education Commission as “bipartisan and pragmatic.” He praised Republican senators Goeff Hansen and Arlan Meekhof for getting the bill passed. “They were hugely influential and key to the compromise.” (Click here to see Hanson's full email response.)

“ESD has never operated or authorized a school nor does it have regulatory authority,” said Lou Glazer, the president of the nonprofit Michigan Future Inc. and a member of the ESD’s board. Glazer has also served as a volunteer on a subcommittee of the coalition. “Like the Mackinac Center and other similar organizations, its ability to change the quality of schools in Detroit is dependent on those who do operate, authorize or regulate schools using ESD’s ideas, information and limited services.” (Click here to see Glazer's full email response.)

Dan Varner, the CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, said the work of his nonprofit has set the stage for the current discussions on education in Detroit going on in the Legislature.

“Excellent Schools Detroit and its founding coalition have helped to identify the challenges that face all public schools in Detroit, produced best-in-class information on school performance, educated public officials and other stakeholders, recommended policy solutions, and much more,” Varner said in an email. “That work helped the Coalition on the Future of Detroit School Children develop and articulate its own solutions to the current challenges, which have been endorsed by Governor Snyder, Mayor Duggan, and which form the basis for the legislation passed by the MI State Senate.” (Click here to see Varner's full email response.)