Detroit Public Schools' Collapse Preceded Charter School Expansion

Lehman: Restricting charters to save failed DPS 'a moral question'

The James & Grace Lee Boggs School is a charter school in Detroit that opened in 2013, one of 25 that have opened since 2011. That was the year a statewide cap on the number of charters was repealed by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder.

The 108 K-6 students at Boggs scored well enough on standardized state tests in 2015 to place it among the 20 best Detroit public schools, including charter and district-run schools.

Just 1.5 miles from Boggs is the Detroit school district’s Spain Elementary-Middle School, with 438 students. In 2015, its students scored much lower on standardized state tests than their nearby charter school peers. While only 6 percent of Spain students scored high enough to be judged “proficient,” 26 percent of Boggs’ students did.

The achievement gap between the two is typical of the gap between district and charter schools in Detroit. The Nation's Report Card published by an independent federal commission named Detroit Public Schools the country’s worst urban school district in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015. (Reports on urban districts are published on a biannual basis while state results are published yearly.)

In contrast, independent researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) call Detroit’s charter schools a model that other struggling urban school systems should follow. A 2015 CREDO report found that on average, charter school students in Detroit gain the equivalent of a few weeks to as much as several months of additional progress in reading and math compared to peers at Detroit district schools.

Yet DPS and its political allies blame the expansion of charter schools for the district’s stunning enrollment decline. They are demanding that Detroit charters be restricted as part of a state bailout for the insolvent and academically failed DPS.

The actual numbers suggest that the DPS exodus began well before the statewide charter cap was lifted.

In the 2007-2008 school year, DPS had 102,494 students. By 2011 — the year the charter cap was lifted — the number had fallen to 70,326, a decline of 32,000 students in just four years. DPS enrollment in the 2015-16 school year was 46,912, a further decline of 23,414 since 2011.

The 25 new charters that have opened in the city since 2011 have attracted about 7,500 students. In other words, three times as many students have departed DPS schools since 2011 than have landed in newly opened charter schools in the city.

There are currently 65 charter schools in Detroit, the first of which opened in 1995. No new charters opened in the city in 2015, and just one is expected to open when school starts in September 2016, plus one more in 2017. Four current Detroit charters plan to close or merge with another charter at the end of this school year.

To parents who want to give their children a good education, the city’s charters are seen as a lifeline.

“We can’t open charter schools fast enough to address the desires of Detroit parents who are looking to escape the chronically failing DPS,” said Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a nonprofit that promotes choice in public education. “Removing the cap on charters helped relieve some of the supply and demand pressure for educational options.”

Parents also used other means to remove their children from DPS.

As of 2015-16, there were 7,216 resident students who went to other public schools via the Schools of Choice law while Detroit only attracted 1,577 students from outside its borders, for a net loss of 5,639.

City and DPS officials, their allies in the media, teachers unions, Democrats in the state Legislature as well as some Republicans too, are trying to make it more difficult for parents to exercise choice.

Half the Republicans in the Michigan state Senate and all but three Democrats voted for a Detroit charter school rationing scheme in which Mayor Michael Duggan would appoint a commission with the power to ban new charters.

In 2014, a Detroit City Council resolution signed by Duggan banned the city from selling dozens of former DPS properties to any charter within one mile of an existing DPS school.

DPS Transition Manager Steven Rhodes has also said he wants to restrict the growth of charter schools within the city.

“It comes down to a moral choice,” said Joe Lehman, the president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Should parents in the nation’s worst urban school district have the right and opportunity to give their children a real chance in life by sending them a charter school that works? Or should we instead force those children to attend an academically failed district school for reasons that have nothing to do with what’s best for the kids?”

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.