charter challenges

The future of 4,000 students is in limbo as Detroit district delays vote on charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Shortly after arriving in Detroit last year, schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti put 13 charter schools on notice: They might have to scramble to survive.

Unlike most of the privately managed, publicly funded charter schools in Michigan, these schools are not overseen by colleges or universities. Instead, the schools got their charters, or contracts, from Detroit’s main school district, which now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The district has 106 schools of its own — and those schools compete with charters for student and teachers.

Vitti announced last summer that the district was thinking of getting out of the charter school business to better focus on the schools it runs directly. He put the matter in front of the school board at a special session in November, with the expectation that there would be a vote in December.

But the matter wasn’t on the school board’s December agenda. It wasn’t on the January agenda, and Vitti now says he’s not sure when a decision will be made.

“Until the board decides to move in a different direction, we are continuing to actively support our district charters,” Vitti told Chalkbeat last week. “At this point, a special meeting has not been called to change direction. When the contracts of individual district charter schools expire, district staff will review their status and make a recommendation to the board for renewal or non-renewal.”

The uncertainty has left about 4,000 students in limbo.

The schools — including some popular schools like David Ellis Academy West, Escuela Avancemos, and Timbuktu Academy — might need to find new authorizers to stay open. And seven of the schools might even need to find new buildings because they’re currently operating in schools that are owned by the district, which could decide to use the buildings in other ways.

“To start over, we would need to find an authorizer, but also find a building,” said a member of a charter school board that leases school property from the district. He asked not to be identified for fear that speaking out could hurt his school. “We would have to attract all new students, potentially in direct competition with the district, which is something we would not be happy about. It makes me tired just thinking about it.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said schools with contracts expiring next year would need to know soon whether they must find a new authorizer and potentially new buildings. Otherwise, administrators could be left scrambling and kids could be without schools.

Five of the schools’ contracts are set to expire at the end of 2019 and a sudden decision not to renew a contract could result in students being left without a school in the middle of the school year, charter leaders say.

“They’re certainly nervous,” Quisenberry said. “They have a very uncertain future now.”

Angela Miles, a parent whose child goes to the Timbuktu Academy, said she wants the Detroit school board to make a decision. “I want there to be a vote so I know ahead of time, so if it closed I could prepare and put my kids somewhere else,” she said.

“This school is dependable – there’s latch key, there’s activities, they’re very involved,” said Okima Smith, another Timbuktu Academy parent. “This is like the last neighborhood school in this area. It would be very hard if the school closed.”

But Vitti said the consideration to potentially stop authorizing charters is not intended to close charters: “Obviously district charters are more than able to shift authorizers and continue to support students,” he said.

The district has been open about its competition with local charters for students, although it continues to oversee the 13 charters. The district can get up to a 3 percent cut of state funding for each student enrolled in those charter schools to offset administrative expenses. 

There is no specific reason why the board has not voted on the issue, Vitti said, but members will be “more precise” in evaluating the schools when their contracts expire.

They plan to look at performance, the number of schools in the neighborhood, how full schools are, financial management, whether the school serves students with special needs, and whether the site may be an option for a traditional public school.

Read the district’s list of pros and cons of continuing to authorize charters presented at the special session last year below.

Scores of scores

Republican state board member says A-F school letter grades would hurt poor students, but lawmakers aren’t convinced

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Tom McMillin, a member of the state board of education, says A-F school letter grades will give the poorest schools the worst letter grades.

A representative of the state board of education spoke strongly against a House bill to evaluate school performance with an A-F report card, but charter supporters argued it was the best way to hold schools accountable.

In the second day of House testimony for the proposal, Tom McMillin, a Republican on the board who represents Oakland Township, strongly expressed his dismay.

“I can tell you which ones will be tagged D and F,” he said, pointing to a graph of the poorest schools. “The ones down here.”

The bill would give each school six letter grades based on student scores, academic growth, improvements made by English learners, graduation and chronic absenteeism rates, and the number of students who take state tests.

Charter leaders and advocates have expressed support for the A-F letter grades because they believe the system would allow parents to see quickly and easily which public schools, traditional or charters, are best-performing.

“One of our guiding principles is that accountability is critical, but the accountability system in Michigan is foggy at best,” said Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, which supports the bill. “We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and grade ourselves.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with others viewing it as too simplistic because it doesn’t necessarily take into account factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

The state board had voted against using letter grades last year because they felt grades didn’t show enough detail for parents. The state superintendent, who earlier had supported letter grades, submitted a system that was a dashboard of data. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved the plan at the end of last year. The dashboard was created to comply with federal education law.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Republican representing parts of Macomb, wasn’t swayed by McMillin’s testimony. Leaving children “in failing schools and not providing the information to parents that’s easy and clear and concise is wrong.”

McMillin shot back: “It’s easy and clear because it’s arbitrary and it could be very wrong.”

The new proposal calls for a dual way of analyzing school performance. To help account for factors like poverty, in addition to letter grades, every school would also be labeled: significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average. Schools would be compared with other schools of similar demographics.

Because letter grades do not fully take poverty into account, one of the six grades would be for student growth, a measure that has been used in other states because it has been called a fairer way of comparing a wealthy school to a poor one.

The bill would create a commission to figure out the details behind the A-F letter grades and labels, including deciding what demographic factors they will look at when comparing schools. If the bill is approved in committee and passed by lawmakers in both houses, commission members would be appointed this fall, and they would be tasked with implementing the new systems for the 2019 school year.

grappling with grades

Getting kids to class may be harder than some lawmakers think. A new study casts doubt on how big a role educators can play.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students walk past a "basketball court" that showcases students with best attendance.

Michigan and other states are focusing more on how often students are absent as a factor in determining a school’s performance. But a new study calls into question whether that’s a good idea.

Two Wayne State University researchers, Sarah Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, said in a report published last week, that when it comes to whether a child will get to class, some schools have more influence over attendance than others.   

Among factors that can influence attendance are how much families trust their teachers, whether the kids feel safe, and response to the school’s discipline policy.  

Michigan is one of 36 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure school performance under the federal education law. But the Wayne State study indicates that it is unreliable to use attendance as an mark of quality to compare schools when the effect of these influences can vary so much.

The findings are problematic for policymakers who want to use chronic absenteeism to judge schools, since the researchers found that in some cases, chronic absenteeism was unrelated to how well the schools were run. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss roughly at least two days of class a month, the report says.

But if GOP lawmakers in Lansing get their way, rates of chronic absenteeism will be even more prominent in determining the success of Michigan schools.

A senate committee Thursday heard testimony for an A-F school grading system. Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican representing Saginaw County, sponsored the bill that would give schools six letter grades. One of those grades is for high rates of absenteeism.

“We can’t keep making excuses, it’s transportation or this or that,” Kelly told Chalkbeat. “We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand and acting like it doesn’t matter. And I understand there’s a lot of contributing forces.”

But, “overall, you show me a high absentee rate and I’ll show you poor performance for a school,” he said.

Democrats on the Senate Education Reform Committee like Rep. Adam Zemke and Rep. Stephanie Chang were concerned the bill lacked nuance about similar issues to the ones raised in the report.

The study comes several months after Michigan’s plan to comply with federal education law was approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Chronic absenteeism is one of the factors the state will consider when evaluating school performance.