Taming the Many-Headed School Choice Monster

I’ve been closely following the Detroit Free Press series on charter schools, having spent time in the Motor City recently. The series concluded somewhat sensationally that charter schools spend $1 billion per year with little transparency or accountability. Predictably, charter advocates in Michigan and elsewhere have dismissed these conclusions while those in favor of traditional districts embraced them.

I agree that the Free Press series cherry-picked a bit, but it’s also true that the charter sector provided a lot of very juicy cherries. Most observers I’ve spoken with privately agree that Detroit charter schools, with some notable exceptions, are a mess and are not being held accountable.

By focusing only on the problems in charter schools, the series misses the bigger picture in Detroit: a lack of quality across both district and charter schools, turf battles rather than leadership and problem-solving, and splintered government oversight. What this adds up to is a sad situation where no one is responsible to ensure that there is a good school for every child or to fix the mess that exists.

Oversight of City Schools Involves Many Agencies

Detroit has far too many ineffective schools, district and charter alike, that are rarely closed by the government agencies charged with overseeing them. There are whole swaths of neighborhoods with not a single high-performing district-run or chartered public school. Nobody is monitoring kids who drop out or whose needs aren’t being met by existing schools.

Low-Performing Schools Are Widespread in Detroit

In the absence of critical services like transportation, which parents overwhelmingly cite as key needs, many families will continue to send their children to subpar district schools. In places where parents are accustomed to fearing for their children’s safety, charter schools can prosper by being just a little more peaceful and caring than district schools.

Detroit Public Schools Struggle with Performance

While Detroit Public Schools’ enrollment has been in precipitous decline since 2009, the district’s special education enrollment is climbing quickly because charter schools simply don’t offer the services those students need. There are many different charter authorizers, none of which is accountable for ensuring that each school is performing or that the market of options is functioning for families.

What is striking to me in Detroit and Michigan more generally is the defensiveness, finger pointing, and lack of leadership on all sides. No one—not the state, not the charter school authorizers, schools and advocates, and not the districts—is willing to take responsibility and fix the problems facing Michigan’s public school children and their families.

The key question is not why Detroit’s public schools, charter and district, have the problems they do. The problems in Detroit are entirely predictable when choice is left largely untended and then layered onto an already failing district and a distressed parent population. The real question is who is going to take responsibility, and how can they get the power to do what must be done?

Detroit is an extreme example, but we are seeing these issues arise—to some degree—in other cities with a lot of choice. Research we’ve recently conducted in “high-choice” cities suggests that many parents, including those from very disadvantaged backgrounds, are actively choosing a school for their child, but too often these same parents are struggling to navigate an increasingly complicated system of public school options. They report having trouble getting good information to inform their choices, dealing with different eligibility and application requirements, and finding adequate transportation. Parents with the least education and those who have children with special needs report the most significant barriers.

Solving these problems in Detroit and in many other cities will not be easy. In trying to promote public school choice, Michigan charter advocates created a many-headed monster by allowing a number of different statewide charter authorizers. While this arrangement made it possible for the sector to expand rapidly, it also means that addressing the challenges facing parents will require cooperation from the many entities, most of which are located outside of the city.

It’s possible for Detroit to change course and have a high-functioning school choice system. Government and nonprofit leaders in cities like Cleveland, DC, New Orleans, Baltimore, and even Detroit have been able to make progress on these issues via voluntary agreements on citywide systems for enrollment and information to help families navigate public school choice. Other cities are finding ways to get promising new charter schools to locate in the neighborhoods that need them most.

In cities like Detroit, however, the situation is too dire to wait for people to come together voluntarily. State leaders, mayors, and others need to change state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly, that families do not face large barriers to choice—such as inadequate transportation—and that someone is responsible to make sure there is a good school for every child. Formal governance changes are needed in Michigan to oversee authorizer actions and to revoke a negligent authorizer’s right to charter. Detroit may also need specialized agency or interagency agreements to oversee and administer citywide systems that facilitate choice and protect kids.

Now that charter schools comprise large portions of many cities’ public schools, school choice advocates can no longer defend freewheeling and fragmented governance as necessary to create an escape valve from a broken system. Charter schools now are the system. If charter, district, state, and civic leaders in Detroit can pivot quickly from their various postures over the Free Press series and start addressing the very real problems that parents face in district-run and charter schools alike, they will have a good chance at building a vibrant system of choice for their city.

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