Detroit Bailout's Charter School Restrictions Not About What's Best for Kids

A failed school district or families and children first?

Legislators may be nearing a final deal on a Detroit Public School bailout package, with a vote possible this week. The sticking point is a proposed Detroit Education Commission appointed by the Detroit mayor that is designed to restrict the expansion of charter schools in the city.

The state Senate passed a bill that creates a DEC, but the House left it out of its version. Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter is adamant that a DPS bailout cannot include a clampdown on school choice for Detroit parents.

DPS and its allies — including Mayor Mike Duggan — have rallied to ensure the commission makes the final cut. But the case for a charter school-restricting DEC has never been fully scrutinized.

Supporters cite the presence of “education deserts” in parts of the city to justify creating a centralized authority restricting charter school growth. However, they never quite make the connection between the problem and their proposed solution. More relevant to their case is that schools run by DPS are only 60 percent filled, with more than 31,000 empty seats.

The extra capacity is the product of enrollment that has crashed more than 70 percent in the past 15 years, and it persists despite the closure of two-thirds of DPS schools. The closures left an uneven distribution of neighborhood schools, and so the supposed deserts.

DPS defenders argue that rather than locating in the places where the need is greatest, new charter schools have instead opened near existing district schools. This, they say, aggravates the district’s overcapacity problem in some parts of the city, while not filling the gap where there aren’t enough schools.

Still, charters on average get significantly better results in terms of student learning gains. And DPS has been named the nation’s worst urban school district by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

DPS defenders argue the proposed commission would be evenhanded as it seeks to make the distribution of charter and district schools more rational through a central planning process. There are strong reasons to believe, though, that the commission would not be evenhanded and is primarily about protecting the academically failed DPS from competition.

For example, language in the Senate-passed bill creating a DEC measures the commission’s success by whether it brings about a “stabilization of or increase in the total membership” of DPS. It’s hard to not read that as placing the priorities of a particular institution – the Detroit school district – ahead of student and family priorities.

Moreover, the Detroit mayor who would appoint members to this commission has demonstrated a willingness to disadvantage charter schools to protect existing district schools. In November 2014, he approved a ban on the city selling 77 school properties to any charter school within one mile of an existing DPS school. This made virtually all the properties off-limits – including many that are located in those deserts.

While school districts are prohibited from imposing deed restrictions on facilities to prevent charter competition from taking ownership for a lawful educational purpose, municipal governments can impose them – and Detroit has done so.

Many of the 77 properties are located in underserved parts of the city. City leaders deny the district’s charter school competition access to these buildings, including the secure facilities depicted by orange dots on the map above. Then they cite “education deserts” to argue for more central planning and restricted choice.

In the end, the case for a Detroit Education Commission doesn’t add up. Charters already operate on an unfair playing field in the city. Proponents of an entity designed to restrict them further should stop pretending they want to do the opposite.

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.