Education Funding

New Urban Playbook: Hand Over Schools to Charter Operators

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 21, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
Teacher Calvin Hobbs works with students at African-centered Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit. Timbuktu has about 350 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and is one of nine Detroit Public Schools-authorized charter schools. The school district's emergency financial manager is proposing turning the operation of 41 academically challenged schools over to charter operators to help cut into a $327 million legacy budget deficit.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied the Detroit school system’s plan would need to approved by the Detroit school board. No such approval is required.

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 by next school year. Officials say their only other option is to close dozens of low-performing schools.

With its plan to hand 41 schools over to outside managers, the 73,000-student Detroit district is borrowing 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. Last week, the district announced it will hand over six more failing schools to charter operators for next school year.

On March 15, 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 intend to write a request for proposals to attract national charter operators that have a successful track record. Last week already, private foundations in Michigan had agreed 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 that after “intense meetings and discussion” with Mr. Bobb, his coalition decided not to endorse the school district’s plan as is. But the coalition recognizes that the “new normal” in Detroit will be a greatly downsized central office and the proliferation of autonomous schools. And the coalition intends to create a plan to attract charter operators and community-based organizations to run schools that Mr. Bobb may want to align his plan with.

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. Mr. Harris said, currently, only one of the nine charter schools now authorized by the Detroit district is high-performing; the rest have average or poor student outcomes.

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 step 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 doesn’t want to have to adhere to collective bargaining agreements with school staff members. “We need 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.

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.

Other Players

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.” He said, though, that he’s open to running a charter school with unionized teachers.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the charter operators that were handed seven low-performing schools this school year don’t hire unionized teachers. And, according to David A. Weiner, the district’s associate superintendent of academics, they have bigger budgets than the average regular public school in Philadelphia because they’ve been able to attract additional dollars from philanthropic organizations. All of those schools also were approved to receive federal School Improvement Grants targeted for turnarounds.

Mr. Weiner said Pennsylvania also funds its schools at a higher per-pupil rate than Michigan does.

He said preliminary data show students in those schools are improving their scores in math and reading; attendance is up and suspensions and the number of violent incidents are down.

“The initial data looks so positive,” Mr. Weiner said, “we thought this was a slam-dunk in terms of turning around schools.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week


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