Detroit District May Rethink Authorizing Charter Schools

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From almost the moment Michigan began allowing charter schools more than 20 years ago, the Detroit school district has been active in authorizing them. But that could soon change.

Members of the board of education for the district have indicated in recent meetings they want to have a deep discussion about the district's role as an authorizer—a role that has contributed to the growth of charter schools in the city.

And last week, new Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he would recommend the Detroit Public Schools Community District get out of the charter school authorization business and instead focus its efforts on improving traditional public schools.

"We have to get it right with traditional public schools and our focus, our energy, our resources need to be on that," Vitti said.

Vitti said there may also be value in continuing as an authorizer and setting the standard in the city for quality authorizing and oversight—and for the district playing an even bigger role as a charter authorizer.

The big question, he said, is whether it's "possible to communicate to the community that we are focused on traditional public schools while still approving charters."

"I feel uncomfortable trying to message both, to be honest," Vitti said.

His comments drew cheers from a few people in the audience of the board's academics subcommittee last week. But others hope Vitti and the board—which would make the ultimate decision—will consider staying in the game.

"I would advocate for DPSCD staying in the charter sector in a limited and high quality way," said Doug Ross, a charter advocate who once oversaw the district's charter schools office.

His argument: Charters "can often innovate more easily and more quickly than centrally managed schools."

"Those urban systems that are beginning to make progress ... have used successful charter experiences in their cities to improve the design and management of their traditional schools," said Ross, who until June 30 headed American Promise Schools, a nonprofit that manages four charter schools in the city.

Vitti Wants Options

Vitti, who took the helm of the school district May 23, raised the issue at the academics subcommittee meeting and again in an interview later in the week with the Free Press.

He said he wants the board to know its options. But his recommendation would be that the district "fulfill the rest of our contracts with our district charters and from there we move in a direction of focusing on our traditional schools."

The district has 13 charter schools. The lengthiest contract is five years, Vitti said.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, who chairs the academics subcommittee, said during the meeting that the issue deserves an extensive discussion, either at an upcoming regular board meeting or a board retreat that will take place sometime this summer.

"Part of what we're trying to do is have a discussion to see what each board member" wants, she said at that meeting.

Some board members have previously expressed concern about the district's role as an authorizer.

Vitti said he's torn because he has confidence in the work the charter school's office and its director Kisha Verdusco have done in providing oversight of the district's charters.

"I believe Kisha's office reviews charters, holds charters more accountable than most authorizers throughout the state of Michigan," Vitti said.

The push to focus on traditional public schools is happening during a time of academic turmoil in the district. Students have been the worst-performing in the nation among big-city school districts on a rigorous national exam. On the state's standardized exam, they don't perform much better, with wide swaths of the student population failing the annual exam the last time results were released last summer.

Charter school students serving primarily Detroit students haven't performed much better.

The DPSCD first authorized a charter school in 1995 after lawmakers in 1993 passed legislation allowing for their creation.

There has always been some discomfort in the community about the role. The district is one of more than a dozen authorizers that have charter schools operating in Detroit.

As more charter schools have opened in the city and inner-ring suburbs, enrollment in the district has dwindled. A district that 15 years ago enrolled nearly 160,000 students now has fewer than 50,000.

Today, more than half of the school-age children living in the city attend a charter school.

Losses hurt

In Michigan, where state school aid is tied to enrollment, student losses can have a crushing impact on finances. Last year, Michigan lawmakers approved a $617-million aid package that resolved the district's years-long debt.

Many of the authorizers that have charters in Detroit are universities located far away from the city. The same legislation that resolved the district's debt also included a provision that would only allow new charters to be OK'd by authorizers that have received accreditation through a national agency.

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That would would mean only Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University could open new charters, Ross said. Other authorizers are able to continue renewing contracts with existing schools.

As for the district's 13 charters, Ross predicts they'll fare well no matter what.

"If DPSCD got out of the charter business, I'm confident many of those schools would be able to secure a new authorizer," Ross said.

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