Education Funding

Proposal for Charter Schools Roils Detroit

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 08, 2003 4 min read
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A contentious standoff over charter schools in Michigan is fueling a struggle over who should control Detroit’s schools.

Detroit teachers gather at the state Capitol on Sept. 25 to protest a deal that would have allowed more charter schools.

Detroit teachers gather at the state Capitol on Sept. 25 to protest a deal that would have allowed more charter schools.
—Photograph by Al Goldis/AP

A state legislative deal that would have allowed a local philanthropist to fulfill his pledge of spending $200 million to build 15 charter schools in Detroit collapsed last month in a flurry of finger-pointing.

The stalled charter school legislation, brokered by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, and Republican lawmakers, included plans to return an elected school board with limited powers to Detroit. The provision would have given the city’s mayor veto power over the selection of the district schools chief, however.

Four years ago, a state law replaced Detroit’s seven-member elected board with one appointed largely by the mayor. The governor makes one appointment.

The furor over the bill prompted the 157,000-student school system to cancel classes on Sept. 25 because so many teachers planned to protest the deal in Lansing, the state capital.

Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick held a town hall meeting last week to ask community leaders, teachers, parents, and students to chart their own course in raising academic achievement throughout the district.

Mr. Kilpatrick, a Democrat, isn’t ready to relinquish total control of the schools to an elected school board, said Howard J. Hughey, the mayor’s spokesman. The mayor wants to take a “strong role” in shaping the direction of the schools, Mr. Hughey added, but just how he will do that remains unclear.

For his part, Kenneth S. Burnley, the district’s chief executive officer, said he’s committed to fulfilling his contract, which ends in 2005. Still, Mr. Burnley said he wants the district to continue to have a “strong CEO” position to eliminate lengthy board debates that could stall reform efforts.

“We have to be able to move with speed and be buttressed from all the politics,” he said.

The teachers’ union wants voters to decide what form the schools’ leadership should take, said Janna K. Garrison, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Detroit voters are scheduled to decide in a referendum next year whether to retain the appointed seven-member board.

Offer Rebuffed

The legislative deal began as Michigan lawmakers sought to clear the way for Robert Thompson, a retired asphalt-paving magnate, to build 15 charter high schools in Detroit.

Mr. Thompson started a charitable foundation for low-income people and to improve education in urban areas after giving almost a third of the profits from the $461 million sale of his company in 1999 to his employees.

The Thompson Foundation, based in Plymouth, Mich., already has established 1,000 private school scholarships for Detroit students.

In addition to seeking to build the 500-student charter schools in Detroit, Mr. Thompson has said he would guarantee that 90 percent of the schools’ freshmen would earn high school diplomas, and that 90 percent of those graduates would continue their education or join the military. He declined to comment on his plans.

Bill Brooks, the chairman of the Detroit school board, said he would prefer that Mr. Thompson invest his money in the school system, much as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has done with its $51.2 million gift to build 67 new small high schools in New York City. (“Gates Awards $51.2 Million to N.Y.C. for Small Schools,” News in Brief, Sept. 24, 2003.)

“Put the money in the system, and let’s have a partnership,” Mr. Brooks said.

Mr. Burnley, the district CEO, said Mr. Thompson had declined the school system’s offer to serve as the chartering agent for his proposed schools.

Working with Gov. Granholm, the Republican-led legislature tried to expand beyond Detroit a previous bill that would have allowed the Thompson Foundation schools.

The state currently has 200 charter schools, serving some 67,000 students. The proposed legislation would have raised the state cap limiting the number of university-chartered schools by 135, earmarked $15 million for districts that lose students to the charters, and increased accountability. The legislation also would have curbed the authority of Bay Mills Tribal Community College to charter an unlimited number of the publicly financed but largely independent schools. (“Mich. Tribe at Center of Charter School Debate,” Aug. 6, 2003.)

The mayor’s message on charter schools is murky. Mr. Kilpatrick’s own children attend charter schools, but the mayor remains concerned that more charters could pull dollars away from the regular public school system, Mr. Hughey said. He stressed that the mayor did not sign off on the legislative proposal.

“If this generous gift serves as a detriment to public education,” he said of Mr. Thompson’s plan, “then we have to walk away.”

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is adamantly opposed to more charter schools in the city. More than 3,000 people, including many teachers, protested against the charter deal at the state Capitol last month.

“We’re opposed to sacrificing one child’s education to the benefit of another,” said Ms. Garrison, the president of the 12,500-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

In pulling the plug on the bill, Gov. Granholm cited a “breach of faith” on the part of Republicans. Angry lawmakers charged that the governor and Mr. Kilpatrick had caved in to pressure from the union. Representatives of both the mayor and governor deny the allegation.

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