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Week In Review: What $617 million can’t buy

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

A massive infusion of cash from Lansing last summer might have given Detroit’s main school district a new lease on life. But it didn’t solve enormous problems like the teacher shortage that has forced the district to end a reading program just as the consequences for struggling to read became more severe.

And while the money helped launch a new Montessori program that has attracted some skeptical families to the district, our story this week notes that ongoing instability in the district has made the program’s future unclear.

“DPS unfortunately is the king of let’s start it, let’s try it for a minute or two, then — oop, no, scrap. But my hope is that with a lot of parent involvement and a lot of community support, we can make sure the program grows and is pushed forward.”

— Yolanda King, Detroit public school teacher and Montessori parent

Read on for more on these stories as well as an update on when struggling Michigan schools could learn if they’ll face closure next year. 

On DeVos, charters and truth

How could philanthropist Betsy DeVos’ past in Michigan predict her future in Washington? That was the question again this week as the country continued to get up to speed on President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary pick.

  • “A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation,” the New York Times concluded after scrutinizing DeVos’ record in Michigan, including her role last spring in blocking an oversight commission that advocates hoped would bring some order to Detroit’s district and charter schools.
  • A columnist suggested DeVos would face an easier confirmation process if she came out in favor of improved oversight and transparency for Michigan charter schools.
  • A Free Press editor blasted DeVos for distorting charter school data to claim the privately run schools are more successful in Detroit than they really are.
  • DeVos got a public defense from state Attorney General (and likely candidate for governor) Bill Schuette — who has received $102,800 in campaign contributions and $20,000 in administrative support from the DeVos family since 2009.
  • Are DeVos’ voucher dreams part of an evangelical Christian mission? One observer who has studied the Christian right thinks so.

In Detroit:

  • A new Montessori program for 150 kids in three Detroit public schools has successfully lured some families that might otherwise have chosen private, charter or suburban schools. But that doesn’t mean the program will survive. No definitive decisions have been made,” a district official said.
  • A teaching shortage has forced DPS to cut its reading intervention program — just as a state law makes the consequences for failing to read more severe. “It’s absolutely absurd and inexplicable,” fumed one Reading Recovery teacher who was reassigned to a regular classroom.
  • Some members of the new Detroit school board spelled out their goals for the coming year.
  • Detroit’s main school district qualifies for so much state and federal funding due to its high number of poor and special needs students that it has one of the highest per-pupil funding levels in the state.
  • A tutor who billed DPS for $684,644 worth of work he never did has pleaded guilty to theft and fraud charges.
  • Detroit high school students learned how to build green infrastructure.
  • Students from suburban school brought holiday gifts to kids at a Detroit charter school.

Across the state:

  • Michigan officials originally said they would identify the state’s lowest-performing — and most at-risk — schools by the end of the year. Now they’ve pushed back their timeline, meaning that anxious Michigan schools will have to wait for the new year to find out if they’re in danger of being shut down.
  • One bill headed to Gov. Rick Snyder could cut down on suspensions and expulsions in Michigan schools. Another would bar schools from using seclusion and restraint to discipline children.
  • Fewer Michigan school districts are broke.
  • The tense environment since election day has triggered complaints of 19 hate or bias incidents in schools.
  • The state appeals court found that a suburban teachers union “took deliberate action” to lock in union dues before the state’s right-to-work legislation took effect.
  • Flint students will get extra help through a $2 million grant to Michigan State University.

From Chalkbeat:

  • Why every online school in Indiana got an F on this year’s state report card.
  • How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness.
  • Chronic absenteeism is lower in New York City charter schools than in district schools, report finds,
  • Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding its “innovation zone” experiment.
  • Why Tennessee’s turnaround district might lose some power.

Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit superintendent — and fights over funding, vouchers and vaccines

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job, May 23, 2017

While the nation’s education world was focused this week on Betsy DeVos, proposed school budget cuts and the fight over who benefits from vouchers, the spotlight in Detroit was trained on Nikolai Vitti. The new superintendent got his final approval from the city Financial Review Commission on Monday and spent his first day Tuesday meeting with teachers and administrators about problems facing the district. Among his early conclusions: Detroit teachers need a raise.

“We have to become more competitive with pay. I don’t think that’s going to be done immediately, at scale, but it’s something that I will be looking closely at in concert with the school board to look at what does our budget look like right now? Where are some opportunities to do things differently? To increase pay?”

— Nikolai Vitti, superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

Read on for more about Vitti and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, check out the play that a group of Detroit student activists wrote and performed to help explain the recent political turmoil in Detroit education.

All about Vitti

  • The Detroit Financial Review Commission, which has authority over all major district spending, gave Vitti the official green light to take over the district on Monday. The vote came despite commissioners’ concerns about the length of Vitti’s five-year contract and whether the district could afford his nearly $300,000 annual salary.
  • On his first day on the job, Vitti got an earful about the need for the district to fill teacher vacancies.
  • One challenge to doing that, he said, is low teacher salaries in the district and the fact that it’s harder to teach in the city than the suburbs. “We can’t just talk about the value that we have with teachers. We have to pay them accordingly,” he said.
  • Vitti made those comments at a teacher job fair where 200 applicants applied for open district jobs. That’s a good start but the district is currently facing a 263-teacher shortage — and that’s without considering new hires that will be needed to fill vacancies created by retirements and by the expected departure of teachers from schools in the state reform district. The Education Achievement Authority schools are returning to the main district this summer.
  • As Vitti worked the room at the job fair, he was accompanied by Alycia Meriweather. The former interim superintendent is now a senior advisor to Vitti but says she and Vitti are “discussing” a permanent role for her.
  • In his first few days, Vitti visited several schools including MLK High School, Golightly Education Center and the Bates Academy
  • As Vitti starts his new job, the Detroit News notes several forces — including the city teachers union — could block his path to success. But a News columnist and radio host writes that Detroiters need to put their trust in Vitti as he “takes the reins of one of the most publicly distrusted and vilified institutions in the city.”
  • As Vitti prepared to leave his previous job running the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, a Florida columnist recalled Vitti’s frenetic “non-stop” pace in that job.
  • In Jacksonville, Vitti was known as a “reformer who produces quick results,” the Detroit News writes in a story that notes Vitti’s rapid pace of change generated some tension with teachers and staff. The paper also reports that Vitti used tens of millions of dollars he attracted in philanthropy to recruit teachers to the Florida district.

In other Detroit news

  • These Detroit student activists wrote a play about recent political turmoil in Detroit schools. Watch it here.
  • A “family literacy” program at a school in southwest Detroit teaches immigrant parents to speak and read English in the same building where their children are learning. The program has dramatically reduced student absences.
  • Activists are fighting to save the Detroit district’s award-winning lunch program.
  • A Detroit mom says her son is facing expulsion after helping a student who was choked by a teacher. Video of the fight shows the teacher pushing the student.
  • Today is the deadline to nominate a Detroit teacher for the Detroit Goodfellows’ annual Teacher of the Year Contest. Students in grades 3-8 can nominate their favorite teacher.
  • Here’s the story of the events that almost led to a unified effort to help Detroit schools — almost.
  • These Detroit students mix day jobs with school.

Across the state

  • The head of Wayne County schools says the state’s current school funding system “simply no longer works for our students, regardless of where they attend school.”
  • A bill that would let charter schools give enrollment preference to low-income students has advanced in the state house.
  • The state’s lieutenant governor says he personally reached out to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about his concerns that the state’s plan to comply with new federal school accountability rules will shortchange children with disabilities.
  • Lawmakers in the House and Senate forged ahead with bills to cut new teachers out of pensions and switch them to a 401(k)-type plan. Legislative experts say making newly hired teachers ineligible for a pension would cost the state $465 million more a year in the first five years. The Free Press says the proposal doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but the Republican House Speaker called it the “best way forward.”
  • A House panel is considering legislation that would allow parents to enroll unvaccinated children in school without signing a waiver. Here’s what’s at stake in the debate and a database that lets parents look up the vaccination rate in their children’s school.
  • About 61.5 percent of graduates from Michigan public high schools in 2016 were enrolled in college within six months of graduation, according to state data. Look up the college-going rates at individual high schools here. Here’s a list of the 53 schools with the highest college-going rate in the state.
  • A GOP lawmaker makes the case for why the state should allow school districts to start the school year before Labor Day.
  • A court hearing on the legality of $2.5 million included in the state budget to reimburse nonpublic schools for health and safety mandates was canceled. The appeals court hearing the case agreed to hear from several parties who believe they were wrongly denied the right to join the case as defendants.
  • A Detroit News columnist highlights an Indiana student who received a voucher to contrast Michigan laws that bar public funds for private schools.
  • This tiny Michigan school district has been in turmoil.
  • The East Detroit school district has changed its name.
  • The Detroit News named 24 local seniors to the paper’s list of “outstanding graduates.”
  • A local high school gym was closed for bedbugs.

 

Week In Review

Week in Review: The teachers union contract that wasn’t, Vitti’s move and more

A new charter school opening on the east side next year will look familiar to many Detroiters — and that familiarity has some people worried. The new charter school will be a publicly funded version of the private Cornerstone School. That means the school can access millions of dollars a year in state funds. But it also means the school must remove religious teachings that are deeply entwined in its curriculum.

The change has upset Cornerstone parents who had chosen the school for its religious values (and didn’t mind paying tuition). It also has triggered alarms for public school advocates who are worried that supporters of religious schools such as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are looking for “backdoor vouchers” to steer public funds to private and religious schools. Vouchers are unconstitutional in Michigan but there are no limits on how many charter schools can open here.

“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting. Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”

— Peter Hammer, director, Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University law school

Read on for more on that story, plus the latest details on Detroit’s new superintendent, the teachers contract that wasn’t, and the rest of the week’s Detroit education news. Thanks for reading!

The new boss

  • Now that Nikolai Vitti has officially signed a contract and started packing up his Florida house to move to Detroit, he’s making plans and laying out a hopeful agenda for fixing Detroit schools. Here’s a look at Vitti’s 100-day plan for his first few months in office.
  • Among his top priorities is meeting with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather about finding a role for her in his administration. Another priority is finding schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District his four children, though the fact that some have special needs could complicate the effort.
  • Vitti and his family also need to find a house in Detroit. (We at Chalkbeat are trying to help and invite our readers to add Vitti housing suggestions on Facebook).
  • In interviews with Chalkbeat, the Free Press, and the Detroit News over the weekend, Vitti offered hopeful optimism — if not many specifics — about his vision for the future. He told the News that he wants Detroit to become a “mecca of traditional public school transformation.”
  • In the Free Press, among other topics, Vitti addressed the delicate question of race, telling the paper that he knows some parents and educators in this majority-black city were hoping the new superintendent would be African American. He responded by noting he’d improved schools for African-American students in “some of the toughest districts in the country,” and is the father of African-American children. “I come home to the achievement gap every day,” he said.
  • Vitti’s call for “better quality control” for charter schools prompted a response from a state charter school organization. “Only by working together can we make Detroit one of the truly great educational cities in America,” the group’s president wrote. Another school choice advocate urged Vitti to focus on quality control in his district, rather than worrying about charter schools.
  • Vitti has an eight-point plan to boost enrollment in the district that includes improving transportation, training employees in customer service, and launching a massive marketing campaign.
  • The new superintendent’s $295,000 salary has generated controversy, especially in a week when contract talks with the city teachers union hit a snag.
  • Days before leaving Jacksonville, Vitti shifted principals at 11 schools in the Duval County School District. His departure has triggered a mixed response  among parents and educators.
  • Vitti said he plans to arrive in Detroit early next week. He’ll soon head to the elite Mackinac Policy Conference to address corporate titans and political power brokers — something that one advocate says is essential right now. (I’ll be interviewing him live there and will report back on what he says).

In other Detroit news

  • Cornerstone’s switch from private school to charter school raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it.
  • The Detroit Federation of Teachers reached — then scrapped — a tentative deal with the district for a new contract.
  • The decision to lease a west side elementary school to a non-profit business incubator has angered some parents and community leaders and raised questions how the deal was made without community discussion.
  • Court documents assert that Detroit’s main district should have paid its debt to a janitorial company with money it got last year from the state.
  • A comprehensive plan to revitalize Detroit’s Cody-Rouge neighborhood includes a new STEAM camp, a mentorship program, and other efforts that will benefit local students and schools.

Across the state

  • For the third consecutive year, the percentage of Michigan public school students who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals has declined. Look up the free lunch rate in Michigan schools and districts here.
  • The Detroit News says the latest effort to study how schools are funded in Michigan is likely to be little more than a “more expensive, longer version” of a school funding study that came out last year — and has largely been collecting dust since. But the study’s defenders argue that the first step to reforming Michigan schools is “an independent, bipartisan look at how we fund Michigan’s public schools.”
  • Teachers are continuing their opposition to A-F grades for schools even as the state has largely backed off a plan to assign them. The head of a school research and advocacy organization, however, says letter grades would improve transparency and promote school quality.
  • A set of bills passed in the state Senate this week would ban schools from suspending or expelling students solely for poor attendance.
  • A fight over teacher pensions has derailed state budget talks.
  • A Republican state lawmaker is likely resigning to work for U.S. Education secretary Betsy DeVos.
  • The heads of two state charter school groups make their case for why charters have “helped breathe new life into the state’s K-12 landscape.”

In other news

  • A $250,000 grant from Google will provide more Detroit-area high school students with hands-on science and engineering after-school programs at the Michigan Engineering Zone.
  • Students at a Detroit charter school won a national chess tournament.
  • A Detroit charter school student saw his winning textile design — “Fist Full of Power” — made into a 5ft x 7ft wool after winning a design competition.
  • Hundreds of volunteers helped beautify three southwest Detroit schools on National Arab American Service Day last weekend.