Headlines

Week in Review: Why school board candidates might struggle to pass a credit check

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit voters will have to choose among 63 candidates to fill seven seats on the new Detroit school board.

How should voters sort through the 63 candidates running for Detroit’s newly empowered school board? A collaboration among several city news organizations this week offered one suggestion: look at their finances.

The news organizations scrutinized all of the candidates’ backgrounds and found that more than half had gotten into deep financial straits, with a dozen filing for bankruptcy over the years. The reporting suggested that the records should give voters pause about candidates’ fitness for a role that includes overseeing the district’s budget — but several contenders said their stories are not unusual in a city where many families struggle.

“It was just one of those times in life. I was a single mom. I was just trying to juggle my bills with raising my three kids.”

— Renae Micou, a preschool administrator who has been sued 30 times since 2002 over unpaid rent

An early issue that the new board might have to confront: school closures, which a new state law could foist on schools with three straight years of rock-bottom test scores. Read on to learn why one Detroit school in the crosshairs says the state’s approach could derail progress that’s already underway — and for the rest of this week’s headlines. Thanks for reading!

Bankrupt and on board:

Investigations by reporters from several collaborating news organizations found that many of the 63 candidates seeking seven open spots on the new Detroit Public Schools Community District board have had financial problems including bankruptcies, foreclosures or evictions.

None appeared to have criminal records but one candidate — a man who works as a teacher’s aide at a charter school — was twice ticketed for soliciting prostitution. He has been put on leave from his job.

Candidates named in the story defended their records, noting that many Detroiters were caught up in recent mortgage and financial crises and shouldn’t be judged for not having the money to weather those storms. One candidate, a retired DPS teacher, noted that her financial burden is due in part to the “many cuts” that have been made to teacher pay in recent years.

But the general manager of a TV station that participated in the candidate review wrote that it’s “imperative” that board members “cannot be … underachievers who use the position to gain political clout or popularity.”

The Free Press compiled the findings into a database that lets voters see which candidates faced financial challenges. The database also includes responses from the 26 candidates who submitted responses to reporters’ questionnaires.

The Detroit News also published its findings on the candidates this week. Among them:

  • Less than half of the school board candidates responded to surveys from the News.
  • The 28 who did respond ranged in age from 27 to 80.
  • None of the responding candidates have children currently enrolled in the district.
  • Seven hold doctoral degrees, 13 have master’s degrees, and two have law degrees.
  • Two are former superintendents, one is a current assistant superintendent, five are former DPS board members and one is a retired substitute teacher.

The News puts the blame for the unwieldy 63-candidate ballot on the rushed timing of legislation that created the new school district, authorized the new board, and included $617 million to prevent the old school district — the Detroit Public Schools — from going into bankruptcy. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder said the governor would have preferred to hold a primary election to winnow down the list of candidates, but there wasn’t time

As the candidates try to get some attention for their campaigns, some have banded together into slates. Candidates on the “A+ Team,” “Detroit’s Dream Team,” and the “Freedom Team” have agreed to work cooperatively with the state’s financial review commission, which will need to approve many of the board’s key decisions. Other slates — including the SPEED slate comprised of members of the old DPS board — have vowed to continue fighting state involvement in local schools.

The head of the state-run Education Achievement Authority called on Detroit voters to choose candidates with track records of supporting the city and knocked the dozens of candidates who failed to fill out questionnaires from the district. “If candidates aren’t willing to make the time to do something this basic while they are running, I doubt their commitment to a six-year term,” she wrote.

In other Detroit schools news:

  • The leader of a Detroit charter school that could be shut down for low tests scores argues that closing schools in the bottom 5 percent on state rankings will just “shuffle the deck” and send students from one low-scoring school to another. “If they’re not doing a radical turnaround design, that school will automatically be in the bottom five, and it’s like this domino effect,” he said.
  • A Free Press editor urged voters to approve a tax hike for Wayne County schools. “Look around metro Detroit, at the gross deterioration of our public schools, and ask whether less money is a path to more greatness,” he wrote.
  • The Detroit News, however, is pushing for a no vote, calling the measure a “bad deal” that won’t benefit all districts in the county and would leave charter schools in the cold.
  • The state’s top legal official is going after the pensions of the Detroit school principals who’ve been convicted of bribery.
  • A school choice supporter takes issue with Bridge Magazine’s characterization of white students leaving their own districts to attend whiter districts as the new “white flight.” Studies show that low-income black students are more likely to cross district borders in search of a better school than their white peers, he writes. “Rolling back families’ power to choose by basing enrollment on a child’s home address won’t increase integration.”
  • A business columnist writes that the fines imposed on contractors who failed to hire enough Detroiters for hockey arena construction are proof that city schools need to improve. “How can Michigan make the case to be the 21st-century hub for next-gen automotive technology, and how can it attract the kind of talent that makes its living with its brains, if it fails to shape an environment that can produce enough graduates who are prepared for, and eager to compete for, those jobs?” he writes.
  • When he’s done running Detroit schools, Steven Rhodes plans to start a mediation service.
  • A Detroit News columnist knocks teachers unions for trying to stop charter schools. “All teachers unions, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers … can’t stand that charter schools pull students (and the money that follows them) away from traditional public schools,” she writes.
  • Proceeds from a college basketball game this weekend will benefit Detroit schools.

Across the state:

  • Michigan fourth and eighth graders ranked in the middle of the pack nationally on a rigorous national science test, with last year’s fourth graders earning higher scores than their counterparts who took the exam in 2009. Eighth-grade scores saw a slight dip since the last test.
  • The leader of a new state education commission explains what he hopes an upcoming “listening tour” across the state will accomplish.
  • A Free Press columnist says new rules forcing schools to hold back third graders who aren’t making the grade won’t actually help kids. What would help, she writes: “Money. Resources … Investment in our kids, starting at birth.”
  • Legislation aimed at softening “zero tolerance” discipline policies in Michigan schools has cleared the house and is waiting for senate action.
  • The education policy director at a free market think tank urged Michigan school officials to consider a school funding system — often called “weighted student funding” — that distributes money to schools based on student characteristics. This system, he argues, would ensure that schools with more needy kids get more money.
  • The principal of a Michigan online charter school says the solution to helping teachers who feel demoralized is to give them more flexibility. “If we want to resolve the student zombie apocalypse of the 21st century, inspiration is the key.” he writes. “[Teachers] must be given the latitude to move well beyond teaching to the test. For they are on the front lines and the energy they demonstrate to their students will be given back in kind.”
  • A Democrat running for a seat in the Georgia senate cites the challenges of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority as a reason to oppose a state recovery district in Georgia.

In other news:  

  • Fifteen metro Detroit schools that serve low- to mixed-income students will be chosen to receive a fully funded series of teacher trainings in a program called Playworks that uses games to improve children’s social and emotional learning. To be eligible, schools must send a representative to a “PlayShop” next week. The free program comes courtesy of a $1.14 million grant.
  • An affluent suburban school was on lockdown after a student reported bringing a gun to school. No weapon was found.
  • A former suburban teacher’s aide faces charges for sexual contact with teens.

From Chalkbeat:

Headlines

Week in Review: Amid DeVos ‘Wild West’ critiques, a new charter school says strict state laws are standing in the way of diversity

PHOTO: Ali Lapetina
The new Detroit Prep charter school aims to be the city's first intentionally diverse charter school.

Michigan schools have gotten scrutiny from across the country this week after President-elect Donald Trump nominated local philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

Among the wide-ranging critiques that have gotten an airing: that DeVos has backed a lax “Wild West” charter school system that has damaged Detroit schools..

So it’s a little surprising to hear a charter school leader say regulations are standing in her way. But that’s exactly the critique coming from the co-founder of Detroit’s newest charter school, Detroit Prep, who says in our latest story that state rules could stop her from enrolling a diverse student body. Her workaround: enroll students in a way that critics call “exclusive” and “sneaky.”

“I think we’re failing our kids if we allow all kids to sit in rooms with kids that only look like them and that are from the same background so if people think we’re going about it in a bad way, I welcome that feedback because we want to hear all perspectives, good and bad.”

Kyle Smitley, co-founder, Detroit Prep

On DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist vaulted to a national stage:

Right to read?

Detroit school children have no fundamental right to literacy, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s attorneys. While Snyder says courts should recognize the “importance of literacy,” he argues the state isn’t required to give every child a decent education. “Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”

The governor’s arguments came in response to the Detroit schools lawsuit, which claims that deplorable school conditions in the city have violated children’s Constitutional rights. Lawyers for the seven children who brought the suit objected to Snyder’s lawsuit response. “Each day that the state chooses to fight this lawsuit is another day of education lost that may never be recovered,” one lawyer said. “Would the state try to wash its hands of this matter if the students suffering were not children of color from low-income families?”

The Detroit News says the lawsuit put the state “in the awkward position of arguing that students don’t have a right to literacy,” adding “but that doesn’t’ mean Snyder and education officials are indifferent to the quality of students’ education.” The paper called on the state to improve local schools but said, “Trying to force better outcomes through the courts … isn’t the way to do this.” (A local radio host disagrees.)

In Detroit schools:

  • A new charter school is Detroit’s most diverse public school. Here’s why it might not stay that way.
  • The Detroit Promise scholarship program has expanded to include free access to four-year colleges for every Detroit high school grad with good grades and strong test scores. Officials say Detroit is now the largest city in the country to offer scholarships to all of its graduates, with kids who don’t qualify for the four-year scholarships entitled to a free ride at local community colleges.
  • A Detroit teachers union leader got a major raise.
  • A yearlong effort by the Free Press to listen to the challenges facing Detroit children included claims from students that they haven’t been properly prepared for college. “DPS did not prepare me for the ACT,” one recent Cody High School grad said. “It was some stuff on it that I knew, but some of that stuff, I know for sure I was never taught.”
  • The paper is highlighting programs that could benefit Detroit kids, including a curriculum that helps young children learn social-emotional and problem-solving skills.
  • A local foundation is giving Detroit’s main school district a quarter million dollars to help the district grow and harvest vegetables to serve in school meals.
  • Stalled plans to build a large urban agriculture park on the site of the shuttered Kettering High School in Detroit have picked up steam.
  • Wayne County taxpayers will start feeling the pinch from the school tax increase when tax bills go out this week.
  • A network of charter schools in Detroit and Dearborn requires students to complete a career-focused internship and senior project in order to graduate.
  • A local advocate called for expanding after-school programs to help low-income kids in Detroit.
  • Two local philanthropists are funding a program at a Detroit school that helps introduce children to yoga, health, fitness and nutrition.
  • A local non-profit executive says Detroit needs to do two things to fix its schools.
  • The Detroit Public Schools Community District is planning a parade on Monday to toast the high school football teams that won the state’s Division I and Division 2 championships — the first time in state history that both winners are from the same district.

Across the state:

  • An effort to force new teachers out of state pension plans is moving forward in Lansing despite testimony that the move will cost billions of dollars.
  • In a state with low reading scores, this west Michigan effort shows promise.
  • One school choice advocate called on the state to “revamp its school rating system” to better help parents make decisions about where to enroll their children. The state, he wrote, “needs a fairer measuring tool that doesn’t punish schools for enrolling a lot of kids with learning struggles.”
  • A suburban high school teacher is working with students to create a museum to honor his school’s history.

Headlines

Week in review: Right-wing Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos reportedly in the mix for Trump education secretary

Harassment and intimidation complaints in schools spiked after last week’s election, and Michigan officials are pleading with “educators at all levels” to help stop the bullying:

“Our schools must be safe havens for our children – free from hate; free from intimidation; free from bullying; and free from fear.”

— State Superintendent Brian Whiston

The election fallout comes as Michigan political watchers wait to see whether an influential figure in state education policy could join the new Trump administration. Read on for more details and the rest of the week’s education news.

Ed sec speculation hits home

As Donald Trump prepares to become president in January, a powerful — and controversial — figure in state education politics is in the mix as a possible education secretary in the Trump administration.

Republican Betsy DeVos helped lead an unsuccessful push to change the state constitution to allow private school vouchers and has been a strong supporter of school choice programs. She sparked criticism this year when together with other wealthy family members, she flooded state lawmakers with campaign cash as they debated whether to include oversight for charter schools in their Detroit schools legislation. They didn’t.

It could be weeks before we know who Trump will choose, but one prominent native Detroiter whose name had been floated says he’s not interested. And while some say that whoever does get the job won’t have much influence under existing federal law, others in Michigan want the U.S. Education Department shuttered completely.

Other names in the education secretary mix include former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett and New York City charter school mogul Eva Moskowitz, who said Thursday that she doesn’t want the job. As Trump appears to be considering education reformers, they face a stark choice: serve or steer clear?

Election aftermath

After his statement Monday that lamented the election’s impact on the “actions, demeanor and mood in some of our schools,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston followed up the next day with another message, this time issued jointly with the state’s top civil rights official. They called on “every administrator, teacher, staff member, parent, guardian, bus driver and student” to “stand as one in condemning intolerable conduct regardless of message or motivation.” The second statement also included a list of resources and specific guidance for schools.

That effort came as some parents at a Grosse Pointe school were angered by a unity message broadcast after the election by the school’s Muslim principal. And a Birmingham teacher is under fire for tweets that questioned the values of his largely white students in the wake of the election.

Those incidents, which follow high profile events last week like the viral video of Royal Oak students chanting “build that wall” in a school cafeteria, are part of a growing national tally of post-election bullying and harassment in schools.

It’s not all negative though. Students at this Michigan school created a “wall of positivity.” And these middle schoolers are doing their part to spread unity and kindness.

In Detroit:

  • The Detroit News says the new Detroit school board must prove itself. Arguing that “despite a couple of bright spots,” the new board “doesn’t offer a lot of hope for the district’s variability,” the paper urged the board to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent. But Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather should be an option, the paper wrote: “She’s done well in her role.”
  • The success of the Wayne County tax hike vote last week might inspire neighboring counties to seek similar votes in upcoming elections.
  • The heads of two prominent local foundations explain why they’re launching a “bold, city-wide engagement to bring the needs of Detroit’s youngest citizens, from birth to age 8, to the forefront.”
  • A local after-school program that teaches low-income children to play classical music was honored this week by the White House.
  • One advocate says Detroit needs more college pipeline programs.
  • The private companies that now run school buses in Detroit have adapted to recent changes and technology.
  • A school bus crashed into a manufacturing plant on Detroit’s northwest side, injuring the driver. No kids were on the bus.
  • A former Detroit Public Schools CEO has died.

Across the state:

  • Without state oversight, dual enrollment programs that are supposed to help students earn free college credits while still in high school are diminishing. While the programs have grown in popularity, not all colleges accept the credits.
  • State officials want public input on how best to respond to changes in federal education law and are holding public forums around the state.
  • What would it cost to pay Michigan teachers the way we pay doctors? A lot.
  • One advocate warns that a teacher pension crisis is looming in Michigan.
  • A suburban teacher’s aide pleaded guilty to charges related to sexaul contact with students.
  • Police at a suburban high school are investigating whether a student threatened to carry out a school shooting.
  • A suburban high school is hosting a “Prep for Success” educational symposium this weekend to help over 1,000 students and their parents get help with study skills, test prep and academic guidance.

From Chalkbeat: