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

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.”

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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

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.

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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

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.”

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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.”