School Choice & Charters

Detroit Plans to Turn 41 Schools Over to Outside Operators

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 29, 2011 7 min read
Teacher Calvin Hobbs works with students at Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology, one of nine existing charter schools in Detroit. The district is making plans to turn nearly a third of its 141 schools over to charter operators or education-management organizations over the next few years.
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The financially embattled Detroit school system has announced a controversial plan to turn nearly a third of the district’s 141 schools over to charter operators or education-management organizations, some as early as next school year. Officials say their only other option is to close dozens of low-performing schools.

The 73,000-student Detroit district’s plan to hand 41 schools over to outside managers borrows a page from the same playbook that a growing number of large urban districts seem to be using.

“You’re seeing more of this activity by school district leaders, but it’s not their only strategy. It’s the right strategy for some schools in some circumstances,” said Greg Richmond, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in Chicago. “We saw none of this 10 years ago.”

The 167,000-student Philadelphia school district turned seven low-performing schools over to charter operators at the start of this school year. On March 16, it announced its selection of three charter operators that will be handed a total of six more failing schools for next school year.

A day earlier, the Los Angeles school district announced that charter operators will be given seven schools to run next school year. The 650,000-student district is in its third school year of partnering with a nonprofit organization created by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to turn around low-performing schools.

The lion’s share of public schools in New Orleans were converted to charter status as the city worked to recover from Hurricane Katrina. And the Chicago and Denver districts have turned schools with poor student results over to charter operators as well. (“New Orleans Schools Seize Post-Katrina Momentum,” August 25, 2010.)

Putting Out the Call

The Detroit plan was announced on March 12 by Robert C. Bobb, the district’s state-appointed emergency financial manager. Steven Wasko, a district spokesman, said school system officials are writing a request for proposals to attract national charter operators that have a successful track record and it could be ready as early as this week. Private foundations in Michigan had already agreed earlier this month to pay the legal costs of creating an RFP and for the process of reviewing applications. Mr. Wasko added that “the phones are ringing and the Blackberries are bouncing off the hook” with charter operators, education reform leaders, and others expressing interest in the plan.

“Even though additional money would be one incentive for a national operator to look at this, they are getting a fully loaded school,” he added. “We’d turn over the keys.”

But two experts on charter schools in Michigan said the Detroit district is not in a position to attract big-name charter operators or education-management organizations with the capacity to improve schooling for the 16,000 students in the 41 schools.

“I don’t think it’s going to work,” said Gary J. Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. “All the independent research done on Michigan charter schools has shown they aren’t as effective as traditional public schools, especially when we control for demographics.”

Mr. Miron said the district was unlikely to attract enough extra funding to recruit top-notch charter operators. One reason charter operators were drawn to New Orleans, for example, was because of an infusion of federal aid after the hurricane, he pointed out.

“Chartering schools is not a silver bullet that can solve the long-standing governance, financial, and academic issues that districts like Detroit face,” James N. Goenner, the president and chief executive officer of the National Charter Schools Initiative, in Mount Pleasant, Mich., said in an e-mail statement. “No amount of efficiencies generated by chartering schools can resolve the massive $2 billion-plus operating and capital debt that has been accumulated” by the Detroit school system.

Detroit’s ‘New Normal’

Another skeptic, Greg Harris, the director of Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition with a mission to improve the quality of the city’s public schools, said he has had a series of “good faith” conversations with the district about the RFP.

“For us, it can’t be just about creating cheaper schools. It has to be about putting in conditions for success so these schools will be successful turnarounds,” he said.

The coalition recognizes that the “new normal” in Detroit will be a greatly downsized central office and the proliferation of autonomous schools. And it intends to create a plan to attract charter operators and community-based organizations to run schools that could align with Mr. Bobb’s plan.

One objection Mr. Harris has to Mr. Bobb’s plan is that the school district would be the authorizer for the schools turned over to outside managers. Only one of the nine charter schools the district currently authorizes is high-performing; the rest have average or poor student outcomes, he said.

Mr. Wasko agreed that only one of the nine charter schools is stellar, but said he wouldn’t characterize the other eight as “low-performing” because they have better student outcomes than any of the 41 schools that Detroit Public Schools plans to turn over to outside operators.

Excellent Schools Detroit has raised $50 million and an additional $150 million in pledges to create 70 “high-performing” schools in Detroit, mostly by turning around existing schools, according to Mr. Harris.

The next steps for the coalition, he said, is “to put our resources behind seeding autonomous schools unencumbered by district rules.” For example, he said, “we have to make sure we can create the governance necessary so they can hire and fire their own teachers, and make sure their teachers don’t get bumped.”

One established education-management organization, Edison Learning Inc., is already a partner with the district to turn around three high schools.

Michael Serpe, a spokesman for the private company, said Edison doesn’t plan to participate in the plan just announced by Mr. Bobb. Mr. Serpe explained that “we’re looking in other directions right now.” Edison is particularly focusing on expanding its work with dropout recovery, he said.

One big-name charter operator, the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, will not vie to take over any schools in Detroit. “We’re focused on starting schools from scratch, and that’s where we’ve been successful, so we’re not going to apply,” said Steve Mancini, the director of public affairs for the charter network.

But Jose Afonso, the director of U.S. business development for SABIS Educational Systems Inc., said his company would likely respond to the request for proposals in Detroit if the conditions were favorable. For example, he said, the per-pupil funding provided for any

of the 41 schools involved must be at least the same as it is for Detroit’s regular public schools.

Also, he said, SABIS Educational Systems needs “total flexibility as far as staffing, budgeting, and making scheduling decisions,” he said.

SABIS operates 79 schools with 60,000 students in 15 countries. Among them are nine charter schools located in the United States, including one in Flint, Mich., and another in Saginaw, Mich. Mr. Afonso said the company, which has headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn., successfully turned around a low-performing school in Springfield, Mass.

Other Players

One well-known national charter operator, Atlanta-based Mosaica Education Inc., which runs 40 charter schools, may consider responding to the RFP as well, said John Q. Porter, who heads the company’s turnaround division.

Also keeping an ear tuned to what Detroit’s request for proposals may contain is Manuel J. Rivera, a former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., schools and the chief executive officer of gems Americas—a New York City-based subsidiary of GEMS Education, which is based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Mr. Rivera is also the CEO of the New York-based Global Partnership Schools, a company he founded in 2008 with Rudy Crew, a former chancellor of the New York City schools. Mr. Rivera said that Global Partnership Schools won’t apply to run any charter schools in Detroit, though it may eventually provide other kinds of services in that district.

Mr. Rivera said he “may consider” Detroit as one of several communities where GEMS Americas, founded in 2009, would set up its first charter schools.

“I don’t even know what the dollars are right now,” said Mr. Rivera. “You don’t want to set up yourself for failure by saying you want to set up a school, and you find the per-pupil funding is barely enough to cover teachers and you will have high class sizes.”

While the details are still being worked out in Detroit, Mr. Wasco said the schools selected for a charter takeover would remain neighborhood schools, serving the majority of students that already attend. That’s in part because spending money on transporting students to other schools would cost money, defeating part of the point of the charter plan.

Once the RFP is created, he said it will likely have a five-week window for responses so that selected operators can quickly pursue hiring their staffs. It’s not certain how many schools will open, however.

“More and more, we’re viewing this as a two-year project,” he said.

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Staff Writer Nirvi Shah contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Detroit Plans to Turn 41 Schools Over to Outside Operators

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