Funding & Finance

Detroit’s vicious cycle: Why national education groups aren’t coming to help some of the country’s most troubled schools

Photo from flickr/nitram242

With some of the nation’s most devastated schools, Detroit is in desperate need of new ideas, new energy — and lots of money.

But when local advocates approach organizations that have invested millions of dollars — and countless hours of problem-solving — into jumpstarting schools in cities like Washington, Memphis, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, the answer often comes back the same:

No. Not Detroit. Not now.

“It’s been a struggle for sure,” said Dan Varner, the CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, who says he’s approached “dozens” of deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, prominent education organizations that boost schools around the country, and charter networks that run successful schools in other cities.

“We were looking for real substantive help and all of them have poked around and have done their homework and have decided not to [come].”

Plenty of Detroiters say that’s a good thing. They point to SWAT teams of education “reformers” who’ve promised to fix urban schools, only to be accused of trampling democracy — as happened recently in Newark when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poured $100 million into schools and angered many locals in the process.

But Varner and others see an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of cities like New York, which turned to national funders to overhaul high schools, and Memphis, where foundation funding spurred a sweeping effort to improve teaching.

Detroit in many ways seems like exactly the kind of city that attracts investment from school reformers. The city has intensive needs, schools that rank among the worst in the nation, and an open-door policy for charter schools, which are often a magnet for money and attention.

But instead of investing in Detroit, many national players have either shunned the city — or pulled out in the face of disappointing results. They cite a chaotic school landscape with little quality control and a divisive political environment that has resulted in no clear plan for fixing local schools.

That has created a vicious cycle for Detroit: As its schools have gotten worse, so have its chances for attracting outside help.

“Cities that have the degree of dysfunction as Detroit need to do things differently, and that usually requires investment — investing in teacher quality, investing in leadership, investing in incubators to develop home-grown schools that can be really exceptional,” said Robin Lake, a national education researcher and the head of the Center on Reinventing Public Education who has written about challenges facing Detroit schools. “That takes money. That takes startup funds, and in most cities that money is coming from private foundations.”

* * *

Education philanthropy hasn’t always steered clear of Detroit.

National philanthropists poured more than $45 million into a state-run school district that, in 2012, took over 15 Detroit public schools. Billionaire Eli Broad, a Detroit native who made a fortune in real estate and insurance, led the effort to support the district, the Education Achievement Authority.

But the politically turbulent experiment drew strong opposition from teachers unions and community members who saw it as a power grab by Gov. Rick Snyder. Now, the EAA schools are expected to be returned to the Detroit Public Schools next year, and many of the foundations that backed the effort seem to have lost interest in putting large sums of money into Detroit education.

While the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is still funding the EAA and initiatives that help individual Detroit students, the foundation has largely turned its attention to other cities like Los Angeles, where the foundation is based.

Eli Broad speaks at Michigan State University. Photo from flickr/arcticpenguin
Eli Broad speaks at Michigan State University. Photo from flickr/arcticpenguin

The Walton Family Foundation had been a major supporter of local charter schools and of advocacy groups like Excellent Schools Detroit. The foundation spent $1.9 million on Detroit education programs in 2014 and about $1 million in 2015. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

But when Walton announced two spending sprees this year — including $1 billion for school choice initiatives and $250 million for charter school construction — Detroit was not among the eligible cities.

“Over time, there has been a developing skepticism about the future of Detroit,” said Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana state superintendent who was a top consultant to the Broad Foundation during its time of heavy investment in Michigan. “I don’t think the national philanthropies will abandon it, but I do think it will take some time to develop a confidence level so that people will come back to Detroit.”

Foundations aren’t the only ones avoiding Detroit. Major charter school networks — like the high-performing KIPP schools — have also stayed away.

“It’s not just national investment, but it’s the best schools in the country,” said Ethan Gray, the CEO of Education Cities, a national network of local education advocacy groups. “They are not looking at Detroit right now for the very simple reason that Detroit has not demonstrated a sufficient commitment to school quality.”

Michigan has some of the most charter-friendly policies in the nation, which put few restrictions on how many schools can open or where they can locate.

These policies have helped transform Detroit into a city of competing school systems. Today, nearly 100 city schools are run by the Detroit Public Schools district, 15 schools are run by the Education Achievement Authority, and nearly 100 are run by mostly for-profit charter school management organizations overseen by 12 different authorizers.

The setup gives families many schools to choose from. But so many schools have opened that the city has an estimated 30,000 empty classroom seats  — an oversupply that forces public and charter schools alike to bleed resources while they scramble for enough students and funding to keep the lights on.

And school quality has suffered. Detroit schools have some of the lowest test scores in the state, with just 10 schools in the city — six selective public schools and four charter schools — scoring above average on the state’s last top-to bottom ranking in 2014.

So when local schools advocates say they want charter school networks like KIPP to come to Detroit, it’s not because they think Detroit needs more schools. They’re hoping KIPP can bring needed resources such as teacher training programs that will ultimately benefit many schools, as teachers develop new skills and move to other schools throughout their careers.

“They bring an infrastructure,” said Punita Thurman, the education program director for Detroit’s Skillman Foundation who has worked with KIPP and other charter networks as they’ve explored expanding to Detroit. When KIPP or Achievement First, another charter operator, comes to a city, for example, they can share their expertise and resources, she said.

When Michigan in 2011 raised its longstanding cap on the number of charter schools that were allowed to open in the state, one of the arguments for allowing more charters was that restrictions had kept away high-quality national networks that want to be able to share administrative expenses among multiple schools.

But five years later, nearly all of Detroit’s charter schools are still small local operations that don’t have the resources of the big national networks.

“It’s not from lack of effort, because we have been actively recruiting those folks to come in and open schools,” said Tim Wood, who heads the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, one of Detroit’s largest charter school authorizers.

KIPP is continuing to explore Detroit and could open a school here as early as 2018, said spokesman Steve Mancini, but the network first must ensure that its schools would succeed.

Obstacles include the state’s $7,500 per-pupil funding rate, which is lower than many other states, and the fact that Michigan does not provide money to cover construction expenses for charter schools. Another issue is the oversupply of classrooms, which means that even schools with good reputations can have trouble recruiting enough students to pay their bills.

“We want to make sure that there are elements in place to really grow and thrive over the long term,” Mancini said.

* * *

Some of those elements could be on the way, thanks to a recent package of legislation.

State officials last month approved a $617 million rescue package for the Detroit Public Schools, mostly to pay off debts that accumulated during more than a decade of state control. The effort, which created a new debt-free district, will put more money into public school classrooms. But many reforms sought by local advocates were left out of the final legislation.

Notably, advocates wanted a mayoral-appointed Detroit Education Commission, which would have enabled local leaders to raise money for citywide education reforms and given the city’s mayor power over where new schools could open — a move that supporters believed would lead to higher standards for schools.

Photo from flickr/snre
Photo from flickr/snre

But the commission was strongly opposed by some charter school supporters who feared it would protect the district at the expense of charters. Ultimately, the final legislation demoted it to a powerless advisory board.

The process was yet another divisive episode in the political climate around schools in Michigan — one that local advocates say has repelled potential supporters.

“People don’t like to go in and invest in an environment where there’s a lot of angst and controversy,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school membership organization.

Still, national players are watching to see whether some of the other reforms in the package — like the city’s first empowered school board in years, a new accountability system that will force the closure of dozens of failing schools, and new accreditation standards for the colleges and universities that authorize charter schools — will lead to improvements.

“We will continue to monitor how recent policy shifts will impact authorizer and school quality in Detroit and across the state,” said Marc Sternberg, who heads the K-12 education program for the Walton Foundation, in a statement. “We know that strong authorizing is key to creating high-quality charter schools, which should only have the privilege of serving students if they are doing it well.”

Sternberg said Walton focuses its investments “in cities where conditions support system-wide improvement and where our grantees – school leaders and advocates – can have the greatest, most sustained impact.”

Some in Detroit would be happy to see Walton stay away.

”We’re better off without them,” said Detroit Board of Education President Herman Davis. “Those foundations are actually a part of the network that’s trying to bring down public education.”

Wayne State University education professor Thomas Pedroni says foundations such as Walton that have heavily backed charter schools and the idea that parents are consumers who should use test scores to choose schools have caused many of the problems facing urban education.

“It would be different if what foundations were doing was taking huge quantities of funding and listening to education research and community activists and putting [money] where research says it would make a difference,” Pedroni said. “But that’s not what’s happening and that’s not what’s happened.”

But others argue that at a time of anemic federal and state funding, Detroit needs all the help it can get.

“I don’t know of a city in the country that is getting at-scale breakthrough student achievement gains that doesn’t have a substantial investment from national players,” said Lou Glazer of Michigan Future Inc., a local think tank that funds and supports new schools, mostly charter schools. In Detroit, he said, “By and large they’re missing in action.”

“The consequence for children,” he said, “is that … you end up with lower-quality schools.”

Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State University political science professor whose book, “Follow the Money,” documents ways that foundation dollars have changed public school politics, notes that many of the changes that have pitted foundations against public school advocates elsewhere in the country have have already happened in Detroit.

While private dollars have generated controversy around the country because it often flows to charter schools, siphoning resources away from districts, Detroit is already the second largest charter school city in the country.

“The cat is out of the bag in terms of Detroit not having what you would consider a traditional public school system anymore,” Reckhow said. “It’s not philanthropy changing that environment … It’s now a question of, if you’re going to have these policies in place, it seems to me that Detroit needs some resources to have better schools given the highly competitive environment that’s not going away.”

* * *

If Detroit wants help from out of state, advocates say the city’s leaders need to come together around a clear, unified strategy for improving the city’s schools.

“The cities that are getting investment — Indianapolis and Oakland, Baton Rouge, Washington DC, New Orleans — they’re all different, but what’s clear is there are intentional efforts in those cities to strategically invest in the growth of high-performing schools and have a high quality bar for both charter and district schools,” said Gray from Education Cities.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which brought together educators, business leaders, community groups and foundations to plot a strategy for schools, is trying to put forward a plan. It made a series of recommendations last year for reforming Detroit schools including the Detroit Education Commission.

The Coalition lost its fight for the commission, but Nate Walker, a policy analyst for the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the group will keep pushing for change.

“In the past year or so, we saw a vast group of stakeholders come together with a common vision for Detroit,” Walker said. “It’s disappointing that a key piece of that plan couldn’t move forward but I’m optimistic that there will be beginnings of a vision … to stabilize the landscape.”

Walker said his union is no fan of the role national foundations have played in public education but said he hopes that if the coalition can stay together and develop a cohesive plan for improving Detroit schools, national education organizations will step up to support local efforts.

“Blindingly advocating for an infusion of private dollars without a meaningful vision around improving education in Detroit is probably not good for Detroit,” Walker said.

But if the private dollars continue to stay away, Varner of Excellent Schools says, Detroiters should think about why.

“There are lots of folks who wouldn’t want national money, I suppose,” Varner said. “But the bottom line is there’s a reason they don’t show up. And the reason has everything to do with the high level of dysfunction in Michigan and Detroit.”

help wanted

Memphis charter office seeks to double in size to keep up with growing sector

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Stacey Thompson, charter planning and authorizer for Shelby County Schools, confers with director of charter schools Charisse Sales and Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

Shelby County Schools is about to double the size of its staff overseeing charter schools.

About a year after a national consultant called the district’s oversight deficient, the school system is seeking to reorganize its team and hire more help.

With 45 charter schools, Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer but has only three people to watch over the sector — “lean for a portfolio of its size,” according to a report by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA.

The charter office reviews applications for new schools, monitors quality of academic programs, ensures compliance with state and federal laws, and can recommend revocation for poor performance.

NACSA Vice President William Haft said the changes point to a school system that is becoming more sophisticated in collaborating with charter schools in order to improve innovation in the classroom.

Shelby County Schools “grew quickly as an authorizer,” he noted, and at a time when the district was also restructuring quickly due to the 2013 merger of city and county schools and subsequent exit of six municipalities.

“When you have just a handful of charter schools, naturally it’s just a small organization and you have an all-hands-on-deck mindset. … Everybody pitches in,” Haft said. “Now there’s an opportunity. And to their credit, the district is recognizing and … taking action to develop those structures that are now absolutely necessary.”

The new positions, which were advertised this month, would add more specificity to job responsibilities.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management, said the restructuring is to meet the needs of a growing number of charter school students, including thousands under the state-run Achievement School District who eventually will return to local governance.

“This is part of the strategic staffing plan …,” Leon said. “This team will be directly responsible for ensuring that children in our community have the opportunity to attain an excellent education and for moving forward the district’s priority around expanding high quality school options.”

The hires also are designed to boost the relationship between charters and the district, which have become increasingly strained over funding and processes. Last spring, confusion over the district’s charter policies came to a head with the revocation of four charters.

Shelby County Schools authorized its first three charter schools in 2003, one year after the state legislature passed a law allowing nonprofit operators to open schools in Tennessee. Though the sector has swelled to 45 schools, its oversight office has only grown from two to three staff members.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ education landscape, the district has sought to step up its oversight of them. Last year, Shelby County Schools issued its first-ever report on the state of charter schools in Memphis. A charter advisory committee also was created to find ways to improve oversight and collaboration in academics, financing and facilities.

Coming out of that committee is a voluntary authorizer fee. Many Memphis operators have said they are willing to pay the fee in exchange for better oversight and collaboration, including adding more staff to the charter office.

“(Charter leaders) look forward to continuing to work with them and others that the district looks to add to the office in order to continue the steps to becoming a high quality authorizer for SCS charter schools,” said Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for Tennessee Charter School Center and co-chairman of the charter advisory committee.

Numbers game

Aurora school board balks at budget-cutting plan that would likely increase class sizes

A college algebra course at Hinkley High School in Aurora. (Photo by Jamie Cotten, Special to The Denver Post).

The Aurora school board on Tuesday rejected increasing student-to-staff ratios as a way to cut the budget, a move that would likely lead to more crowded classrooms and fewer teachers.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn was seeking the board’s guidance on the idea, one of several under consideration to trim the 2017-18 budget by about $31 million.

More than 100 teachers, parents and community members packed the board meeting to speak out about the impact of increased class sizes — and the board told Munn to look elsewhere.

Munn presented the request saying the district would try to change staff ratios as little as possible. While more modest budget cuts this year have not been felt in classrooms, Munn said it may be inevitable. The district is facing a budget crisis due to record enrollment declines, among other issues.

Staff salaries make up by far the largest share of school districts’ budgets.

“If we take 70 percent of our budget out of the conversation, then that leaves very little room to address what are significant unknowns that are in front of us,” Munn said.

In Aurora, staffing ratios are used to calculate the largest portion of school budgets.

Opponents’ criticism of the plan at Tuesday’s board meeting contrasted to what district officials gathered during a community input process. Of four budget-cutting scenarios, one that included the staff-ratio increases received the most first-choice votes from participants.

District officials in laying out the scenarios claimed that increasing the staffing ratio would not directly increase class sizes.

“Personnel dollars are allocated to schools and then principals make staffing decisions,” it stated.

On a practical basis, however, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion, according to educators and community members who spoke during Tuesday’s public comment.

“I currently have 31 students in my home room,” one teacher told the board. “The more students I have, the harder my job becomes.”

Board president Amber Drevon said that because the increased student-to-staff ratios had more than a 90 percent chance of increasing class sizes, she would rather not change the ratios.

“I think our class sizes are too big as it is,” Drevon said.

Four of the six board members at Tuesday’s meeting said the same, asking Munn and district administrators to take a closer look at all other options, including some scenarios submitted by the public.

District officials have sought to clarify that the district is not bound to pick any of the drafted scenarios — including the ones they drafted — or to follow them as presented.

“The scenarios were meant to drive a community conversation,” the district’s budget website now states. “They were NOT designed to represent specific courses of action.”

The district is still able to present other cuts later this spring, said Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman.

In part, the district says the cuts are needed because of a declining trend in student enrollment, and in part because of a potential drop in property taxes that would mean less local money for schools. The district is also looking to start building up its reserves — basically, rainy day money — instead of continuing to dip into the fund.

In the current school year, the district has already made more than $3 million in administrative cuts and authorized use of reserves to prevent other mid-year cuts.

Board member Dan Jorgensen asked the district to consider using dollars from reserves once again for next school year. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, the reserves stood at more than $15 million.

The board also had a brief discussion Tuesday insisting that they had the right to analyze the budget line by line, against the advice of the district’s attorney citing the district’s governance policy. Board members said they did not want to analyze the budget that way, but said they would if they needed to.

“Everything is on the table,” Drevon said. “We’re a long way away from making any final budget decisions.”