Governor Gives Academically Failed Detroit Schools a Three-Year Pass

Charter schools in Detroit still accountable

The demand by the media and Democratic politicians for more oversight in Michigan’s public schools has been almost entirely focused on charter schools.

Yet, consider the academically failing schools run by a district that has been riddled with corruption for more than a decade. That district, in which more than half the schools are failing academically, recently received a $617 million state bailout because it was insolvent. And now, Gov. Snyder just handed the district's schools a three-year pass on the threat of closure.

The governor cited a legal opinion on Thursday from the law firm Miller Canfield that the bailout law he signed less than three months ago prohibits closing a school of the newly reconstituted Detroit Public Schools Community School District before July 1, 2019.

Charter schools, however, can still be closed within the city of Detroit.

Rep. Kevin Cotter, speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, criticized the move in a press release: “The Miller Canfield memo employs grammatical gymnastics to conclude that a provision intended to close failing Detroit schools should instead be read to legally require that those failing schools remain open, moving the school reform effort backward.”

Cotter continued: “As a simple matter of common sense, it cannot be said with a straight face that the Legislature intended for the worst-of-the-worst schools in Detroit to remain open. This mistaken interpretation would also require failing charter public schools to be closed while failing traditional public schools are allowed to persist and drag down class after class of Detroit students, which is an absurd conclusion.”

More than half of the regular (non-charter) public schools within the city of Detroit received an F grade in a school report card that factors in the student’s socio-economic background to determine how much value a school is adding. With this adjustment, 54 of the city’s 93 regular elementary, middle and high schools still received an F grade. The report card was created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Nine other regular public school buildings that had been under heightened state oversight will be under the reconstituted Detroit district. They, too, have been among the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools since 2010. But those failing schools, as well as others, may end up not being closed for at least three more years.

The state of Michigan’s bottom 5 percent rankings do not factor in a student’s socio-economic background. According to the latest update to this list, half of the state’s 116 worst-performing schools were regular (non-charter) schools within the city of Detroit.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said it was unacceptable that any student in Michigan should attend a school that has been failing for years.

“So regardless of what the State Reform Office does with traditional schools, Michigan’s charter schools remain committed to the type of accountability that we believe the Legislature intended,” Quisenberry said. “As a result, we expect charter school authorizers to continue to hold their charter schools to higher standards, to intervene early to make changes to adults in schools as necessary and ultimately, and when nothing else has worked, close and then replace a school that is failing its students."

One possibility none of the parties have yet mentioned is amending the provision in the recent law now being cited as effectively a mandate to keep failed schools open. Republican caucuses have a 27-11 majority in the Senate and 63-47 in the House. There would be time in legislative sessions scheduled for this month and next to enact a fix if Cotter and others wanted to make the new law reflect what he insists was intended.

The state of Michigan has not responded to a challenge from a nonprofit school reform group (the Great Lakes Education Project) to name a single regular school it has closed for academic reasons. According to the state records, over several years, 27 charter schools within the city of Detroit had closed their doors as of August 2015. Academics played a role in nine of those charter closings.