News Story

Detroit Schools Transition Chief Says: Restrict Charter Schools in City

School choice for parents vs. protecting nation's worst urban district

The man Gov. Rick Snyder asked to oversee a governance transition in Detroit Public Schools said that limiting charter schools in the city will be a key to reforming the troubled school district.

As a federal judge, Steven Rhodes presided over the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy. Now in retirement from the judiciary, he made the statements about limiting charters in a TV interview, as reported by The Detroit News. Rhodes said he favors limiting parental choice through a proposed Detroit Education Commission.

Rhodes’ comments come as school choice advocates already fear that Detroit’s Democratic political establishment is stacking the deck against charter schools.

The proposed commission would be controlled by Mayor Mike Duggan, who in 2014 approved a ban on selling dozens of city-owned properties to any charter school that would operate within a mile of a DPS school. The commission would have considerable veto power over any new charter school opening in Detroit.

Currently, charters are the most accessible school choice option for Detroit parents who don’t want their children in an academically failed district school. They have become a political hot button in a tug-of-war between parents who want a choice and interests trying to preserve the status quo Detroit school district and school board.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has rated Detroit Public Schools the nation’s worst urban district in each of its biannual city report cards since 2009. The district has been the focus of successive reform efforts going back to at least the 1990s.

Independent academic research on Detroit charter schools indicates they are generally doing a very good job. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released a study in 2015 that found students in Detroit charter schools receive the equivalent of a few weeks to as much as several months of additional learning in reading and math compared to their peers at traditional public schools. CREDO said Detroit charters should be a model for other communities to follow.

While academic performance varies from school to school, charter schools have also generally outperformed traditional Detroit Public Schools in statewide standardized tests, according to an analysis by the pro-school choice Great Lakes Education Project.

Rhodes said on the WKAR-TV show “Off The Record” that there should be “some form of a DEC or some form of mechanism by which the uncontrolled growth and placement of charter schools can be regulated.”

The Detroit News also reported: Rhodes said the traditional school district’s future hinges on limiting the number of competing charter schools.

“It will be more challenging for DPS to succeed without some kind of control over the opening of new charter schools or other kinds of educational opportunities,” he said.

Charter school advocates said that Rhodes’ comments confirmed what they already believed, that charter schools would be limited by Democrats if allowed by the state legislators.

“At least Judge Rhodes is being honest about the aim and intent of the Detroit Education Commission,” said Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, in an email. “The deck will be stacked against charter schools with a DEC, and he’s admitting it. We don’t need to limit charter schools so that students will be funneled to a DPS school. Parents have made the choice to leave DPS. Politicians don’t get the right to take that away from them because the parents’ choice didn’t benefit the politicians’ financial goals. Instead of forcing students back into DPS, perhaps they should be focused on it building a school district that will bring them back.”

In March, the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate passed a Detroit schools bailout bill containing a Detroit Education Commission appointed by the mayor of Detroit. The commission would have the power to ration school choice and its success would be measured by how well it protected existing Detroit public schools from charter school competition.

Duggan publicly stated he wants a “level playing field” for charters and district schools, though he has also approved of the ban on charters within the city.

Duggan isn’t the only Democrat looking to limit the ability of charter schools to operate within Detroit.

Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, tried and failed in both a House committee and on the House Floor to amend a different version of a DPS bailout bill to ban any new charter schools from within five miles of an existing district school. That would have effectively banned any new charter schools from the city of Detroit.

Now, school choice advocates say Rhodes’ comments confirm their fears.

“Judge Rhodes has admitted what we’ve been saying for over a year – that the purpose of the DEC is to prop up the new traditional district at the expense of parental choice,” said Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, in a press release.

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.