Why a Charter School Takeover Might Be Coming to Your Town

Upheaval in the Detroit public schools could signal the fate of other cash-strapped districts.
An abandoned Detroit public school. (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
Jun 14, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It seems like good news: Detroit public schools are set to receive more than $600 million in funds from the state legislature—badly needed cash to prop up a crumbling system deep in debt. A closer look reveals the catch: a sweeping plan to revamp the urban school system, undermine public schools, and create more charter schools.

If you live in a red state, analysts say, that type of plan could be coming to an urban school district near you—if it hasn’t already.

RELATED: No Class for 45,000 Detroit Kids as Teachers Protest Rat-Infested Schools

Detroit’s plan is the latest in twin national trends, experts say: red-state struggles to adequately fund public schools, particularly in urban areas, coupled with a growing appetite among education reformers (and like-minded conservative politicians) to replace them with charter schools with less accountability and a reputation of shortchanging minority students and poor communities.

“It’s not totally clear that [Detroit public schools] are getting enough money” to make badly needed upgrades to neighborhood schools, said Jeffrey Bryant, an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the director of the Education Opportunity Network website. “It’s like treating a gunshot victim, and all you do is stop the bleeding.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of charter schools nationwide has more than tripled since 2000, from 1.7 percent to 6.2 percent, with the total number of public charter schools increasing from 1,500 to 6,100. But they’ve also gotten bigger over the same time. The number of schools that have between 500 and 1,000 students doubled, from 11 percent to 22 percent.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, revamped the city’s school system with an emphasis on charter schools, with mixed results. Ditto Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, who helped shift Indianapolis schools toward a charter model.

RELATED: The Battle to Save New Orleans’ Schools

In Detroit, a population drain of more than 1.1 million people since the 1950s led to a collapse of school funding, and dozens of schools across the city were shuttered. Deep in debt, administrators of the remaining schools sought help from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-dominated state legislature.

Under the resulting plan, the 100 remaining schools will be split into two districts—one that will remain for tax-collection purposes to help settle the $617 million debt and a newer district that will get an infusion of money to help.

Though lawmakers in Michigan have signaled that charter schools will be part of the new Detroit school landscape, Kimberly Quick, an education analyst at The Century Foundation, said officials should proceed with caution.

“Republicans supposedly removed language that made it easier for failing charters to remain open while traditional public schools had to automatically close,” Quick wrote in an email to TakePart. “I’m not comfortable saying whether or not the plan is designed to undermine traditional public schools (I would need to read the actual legislation), but I will express concern that the bill was not passed on a bipartisan basis, fails to establish any [governing] body that has binding authority over the locations of new schools, and seems to preference unregulated, uncontrolled choice.”

That could be bad news for poor and minority kids living in the city, experts say.

At the same time, charter schools in Washington, D.C., and Chicago have had problems. Statistics show charter schools expel students at a higher rate than traditional schools do, and a pending lawsuit in Delaware alleges charter schools foment racial segregation. A joint report by two organizations that support traditional schools found waste, fraud, and abuse in systems nationwide.

“Charters are not a monolith. Nationally, they enroll about 5 percent of schoolchildren,” Quick wrote. “Some are great, and some are failing. Too many people have falsely bought into the idea that because charters are a more ‘market-centered’ intervention, they are superior to traditional schools.”

Bryant agreed but predicted charter schools are squarely on the agenda for more cities nationwide—especially as red states such as Kansas and Illinois battle with local courts and school administrators in Kansas City and Chicago over equitable school funding, with the future of neighborhood schools at stake.

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While conservative lawmakers and education reformers are trying to break the backs of the public school system, “at the same time, charter schools are expanding,” Bryant said. The shift, he added, has the potential to create “education deserts”—low-income communities without local schools, forcing kids to take buses to get to the nearest charter school.

“It’s frankly distressing,” he said.

Quick agreed, especially in light of the $617 million Detroit schools bailout.

The price tag “is appealing, [but] the amount of money allocated toward transition costs seems low, particularly considering that DPS is a high-needs, low-income school district,” she wrote.

“Teachers in particular know that DPS is in dire need of resources above and beyond a $150 transition package; that’s why they recently staged a ‘sick out’ to protest the hazardous work conditions, crumbling buildings and infrastructure, and poor union protections,” Quick wrote.

Given the problems—and the charter schools on the horizon—Quick wrote, “this plan seems to leave educators even more vulnerable.”