Week In Review
Week in review: A new year, a new Detroit school board — and maybe soon a new lawsuit
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.
Now that we’ve started a new year, the new Detroit school board is officially in charge of the state’s largest district. After spending the last two months in intensive orientation workshops, the seven members of the new board will be sworn in during a ceremony at Cass Tech on Wednesday. Then it’s time to get to work. In interviews with Chalkbeat, board members said their top priorities include a national search for a permanent superintendent — and possibly going to court to prevent the state from shuttering low-performing schools.
“I’m a community developer. I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community… I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”
— Sonya Mays, member, new Detroit school board
Read on for more about the new board, the rest of the week’s education news, plus a few headlines that you might have missed over the holiday.
New year, new board
- The U.S. Senate is scheduled to hold its first hearing next week on the Betsy DeVos nomination for education secretary. It’s one of several controversial hearings that critics say were scheduled for the same day to reduce public scrutiny.
- DeVos has been the subject of sharp debate since her nomination. The Christian Science Monitor writes that Michigan’s schools story “offers perhaps the best preview of the free-market style education policies that could soon be getting a wider roll-out across America.”
- In dueling op/eds in the News, a Republican state lawmaker says DeVos will free local schools from burdensome federal and state mandates, while a former Democratic party and Detroit schools spokesman says DeVos is “scary on steroids.”
In other news:
Week In Review: What $617 million can’t buy
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.
- 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.
- 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.
In a city that desperately needs quality schools, there are few things more confounding than knowing there are great programs in Detroit that can’t fill their seats. A story from our partner, the Teacher Project, this week highlights some of the reasons that low-income families struggle to find Head Start programs, even as the programs struggle to find enough kids.
“Where are the children? … I am becoming a walking billboard. I carry flyers everywhere.”
— Laura Lefever, director, Children’s Center Head Start
That story builds on a Chalkbeat report from last spring about hundreds of Head Start vacancies caused by teacher shortages and the challenge of bringing classroom space up to code after years of deterioration and neglect.
Also this week, the debate around the Detroit charter school that critics say is using a “sneaky” enrollment method to create diversity went national when the Atlantic picked up our story on the school, generating heated comments from readers. Please take a look — and read on for the rest of the week’s headlines.
Want to support our independent, local journalism? Donate here to help us reach our goal of raising $50,000 by Dec. 31.
District in transition
Bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes is leaving his Transition Manager role with the Detroit Public Schools Community District at the end of the month. He says he’s leaving the new school board with a balanced budget — but many challenges. Here’s what Rhodes and Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told the state legislature this week:
- They’re holding twice-weekly training sessions for the new board members who were elected last month.
- Detroiters could see more school corruption cases as the district’s Inspector General pursues “several matters … that may result in further criminal investigations and charges,” Rhodes said.
- Rhodes is urging the new board to give Meriweather a permanent post: “She has done an extraordinary job,” he said. “Her insight into the educational process and what it takes to achieve success in an urban district is amazing.”
- Rhodes called on the legislature to “continue to insist on prudence” in the district’s financial affairs but said: “I also urge it to consider that educating children who live in poverty … is more challenging and therefore more expensive.”
- Meriweather says the $617 million the state spent this summer to create a new debt-free district has helped educators focus on improving education but warned that improvements will take time. “It will take us eight to 10 years to get there,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.” (That comment prompted a pro-charter school website to assert that charters are a better option.)
Division on DeVos
The impact of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, on Michigan schools got a closer look this week. Here’s what analysts here and across the country said:
- The Free Press editorial page editor blames DeVos and her advocacy for the poor state of charter schools in Detroit and Michigan. “I’m certain she’ll try to make the nation’s charter landscape look more like the chaos we face here in Detroit, and less like it does in (higher performing) states like Tennessee or Massachusetts,” he wrote in a column that the Washington Post reprinted.
- Bridge Magazine wrote that “DeVos’s dogged commitment to policies that have yielded, at best, mixed results in Michigan raises questions about what lessons she would take to Washington, as well as about her willingness to listen to viewpoints outside her free-market ideology.”
- Education Week offered this timeline of DeVos’ influence on state education policy, and Politico called Michigan’s charter school results “so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”
- But a DeVos supporter said criticism misstates Michigan’s charter record. And Crain’s says DeVos will “shake up the status quo,” though it added: “if choice expands with federal dollars, DeVos should heed some lessons from Michigan.”
- NPR visited the successful DeVos-founded charter school that trains students to become pilots or pursue careers in aviation or engineering fields. “I think the word choice says it all,” the school’s principal said. “The philosophy of our school from Dick and Betsy, obviously, is to provide opportunities for all kids. So the word opportunity and choice to me go hand in hand.”
In other Detroit news:
- The main Detroit school district is still hiring teachers, especially those certified in math, science, and languages.
- A columnist praises the schools in the state-run recovery district but says signs of progress have come too late to save the district.
- Michigan State University is expanding its educational offerings in Detroit with music classes and a training program that prepares educators to teach in an urban setting.
- After a brief delay, the bribery trial of a former DPS principal began with testimony from an FBI agent who said the principal admitted to taking $40,000. The principal planned to tell jurors she used the money on her school, but a judge scratched that defense.
- The heads of two major foundations appeared on TV to explain why they’re investing heavily in early childhood education in Detroit.
- Students at a dozen local schools are participating in the national “Hour of Code” today.
- Members of two Detroit high school football teams are learning the importance of “digital etiquette” to protect their reputations online.
- Detroit’s main district threw a parade to celebrate the two city football teams that won state championships.
- This Detroit high school won $20,000 worth of sports equipment.
Across the state:
- Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday abruptly ended a push to pull $430 million out of the School Aid Fund to pay income tax refunds but said he might revive it later. “It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not the right time to do it,” his spokesman said. School advocates said the plan would cost schools nearly $300 per student (and a Free Press columnist called it “sketchy.”) Snyder’s office said his next budget will increase school funding.
- New Michigan teachers and municipal workers will continue to get pensions after legislation to change the retirement system failed (for now) in Lansing. One columnist says lawmakers have declared “war on teachers,” while an advocate says the pension changes would have benefitted teachers.
- The state teachers union has continued to lose members since right-to-work legislation made membership optional.
- A statewide coalition of business, civil rights, and community groups is calling on state education officials to prioritize excellence, equity and transparency as they adapt state policies to conform with new federal education laws.
- The state lieutenant governor called for schools to stop using restraint and seclusion to control children with special needs in non-emergency situations — a practice he called inhumane and barbaric. His call was supported by a columnist who described what happened to an 8-year-old boy with autism with who was locked in a padded room for hours.
- A school counseling advocate urged parents and business leaders to call their legislators to back a bill that aims to improve college counseling for high schoolers.
- Graduation rates in Michigan and across the country are expected to drop in coming years.
- Parents at a suburban middle school dogged by racial incidents gathered for a “peace forum” to promote unity.
- Calls from residents in a suburban community for a school board member to step down following offensive social media posts is getting national attention.
- An elite suburban school has landed a $1 million donation.
More from Chalkbeat
- New York City’s improvement goals for its most struggling schools are in many cases completely marginal.
- Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has a message for principals: “It’s not all up to you.”
- Donald Trump’s apparent backtracking on young adults who came to the country illegally as children is adding even more uncertainty for teachers in that category.
- Indiana’s aggressive efforts to recruit more teachers aren’t paying off.
- Meet Michael Johnston, the Colorado education policy architect who is eyeing the governor’s office.