Did School Choice Opposition Help Doom Detroit’s Bid For Amazon HQ?

Charters are city’s most promising schools yet face significant political opposition

Media pundits were quick to suggest they knew why Detroit missed making the cut of cities the online retailer was considering for its new headquarters.

The Detroit Free Press ran a story with the headline: “Detroit couldn’t compete with education of other Amazon finalists.”

“We need to get serious about fixing Detroit schools,” wrote John Gallagher, a Detroit Free Press business writer.

Phil Power, founder of the nonprofit Center for Michigan, wrote that Amazon’s rejection of Detroit should outrage Michigan residents.

“Each of us needs to grab anyone running for governor or state legislature who comes to our door asking for our vote and ask, ‘How, exactly, are you going to fix our disgraceful school performance?’ If that were to happen, my guess is that the political system might, just might, start getting the message,” Power wrote.

It was all mere speculation since Amazon never explained why it passed on Detroit.

But if the company’s executives had paid attention to the city’s public education landscape, they would have seen something to give them pause. Many state and city politicians, the school board, and even many civic leaders and media pundits favored ideas that would make life more difficult for public charter schools, the most promising school innovation in Detroit to date.

In 2015, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, praised Detroit’s charter schools. A CREDO report said their students gained the equivalent of a few weeks to as much as several months of extra progress in reading and math compared to their peers at Detroit's conventional public school district. The research center went on to say that charter schools in Detroit should serve as a model for other urban communities in the U.S.

Yet, public charter schools have been the target of intense opposition and criticism from the political class in Detroit and beyond, likely because they are not unionized or under its control.

Last October, Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said that charter schools were disastrous. He added that traditional public schools are the best place for a child to be educated.

Vitti’s assertion flies in the face of the best research and evidence on education in Detroit.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress has rated the Detroit Public Schools (the former name of the now-renamed district) as the worst urban school system in the country. It did so in four successive reports: 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.

In contrast, many charter schools in Detroit are academic success stories.

The boards of Detroit Merit Charter Academy and the Detroit Premier Academy have both contracted with the for-profit company National Heritage Academies to manage their schools. Both schools earned an A grade on the most recent school report card issued by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. That report card factors in the socioeconomic backgrounds of a school’s student body to ensure valid comparisons between schools serving very different populations. The vast majority of students attending Detroit schools come from low- income households.

Both of these A-rated charters will no longer exist if Democrats in the state Legislature get their way.

Last fall, Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton, and two-thirds of the House Democratic caucus sponsored or co-sponsored a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit charter schools from hiring for-profit management companies. Whether the for-profit companies are providing rare academic excellence within the city would have no bearing under the potential ballot initiative.

Democrats have also introduced bills that would require charter schools to pay into the state-run school employee pension system, even though their teachers earn no benefits from it. This would amount to an expensive and punitive tax on charter schools.

Despite the success of charter schools in Detroit, a broad swath of the state political class has fought them, including nearly every elected Democrat and a Republican governor who had earlier removed an artificial cap on the number of charters.

By the 2015-16 school year, the Detroit school district had become insolvent and unable to continue without resorting to either bankruptcy court or a state bailout. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s preferred bailout plan included a scheme promoted by the Detroit school district and allied interests to create a city commission with the power to ration and ultimately squeeze out charters. A state Senate with a 26-13 Republican majority passed a bailout bill that included the scheme, but it died when House Speaker Kevin Cotter refused to go along.

In May 2016, as the bailout package was entering its final laps in the Legislature, Snyder appointed a manager to return management of the district from the state to a locally elected board. Snyder’s appointee said that limiting charter schools in the city would be key to reforming the district, which for decades has been a statewide emblem of failure and corruption.

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

Rhodes also favored the scheme for rationing charter schools, dubbed the Detroit Education Commission.

Mayor Mike Duggan has also worked to limit charter schools within the city. In 2014 he approved a City Council resolution banning the sale of city-owned property to any charter school located within a mile of a district school building.

And in January of this year, officials in the Detroit Public Schools Community District — which received a state bailout — blocked a charter school from obtaining one of its former buildings. Detroit Prep Charter Academy wanted to buy and rehabilitate the building from a developer. The school district had placed a deed restriction on the building when it sold it to the developer and has refused to lift the restriction.

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.