on the issues

What’s at stake for Detroit students in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary

PHOTO: Detroit Journalism Cooperative
Six of the major candidates of governor in Michigan — three Democrats and three Republicans — answered questions from reporters with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative including Chalkbeat Detroit.

The future of Detroit schools is on the line this election cycle, and it starts not with the school board election in November but with Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary.

The next inhabitant of the governor’s  mansion will have a hand in school closures and charter policy, and the governor’s cooperation will be needed to avoid a third-grade literacy cliff and a facilities crisis in the state’s largest school district. The next leader of Michigan will decide how to address questions about school funding, charter schools, and early childhood education.

The candidates’ public statements reveal differences even between members of the same party, making clear just how much is at stake for the city’s more than 100,000 school-age children in the election this week.

Voters will have a chance to help one political party pick its nominees for statewide offices when polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday. Republican voters will choose between gubernatorial candidates Brian Calley, Bill Schuette, Jim Hines, and Patrick Colbeck. The would-be Democratic nominees are Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed, and Shri Thanedar.

The winner’s education policies will be felt keenly across the state — and especially by families in Detroit.

Dozens of schools — many of them in Detroit — could face closure.

An effort to shutter 38 low-performing schools across the state was taken off the table last year by Gov. Rick Snyder, but the effort could well be revisited by the next governor.

Candidates from both parties have largely avoided tough language about failing schools, instead focusing on providing the resources to help them improve.

“Instead of having a school closing process, why not have a school improvement process that serves as a prevention of the need to close schools in the first place?” asked Calley, the current Lieutenant Governor, in an interview last month with Chalkbeat and other members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.. The Democratic candidates have all said they oppose school closures.

Schuette, the Attorney General and presumed GOP frontrunner, stands out for his support of school closures. Last year, his office issued an opinion endorsing the legality of the proposed closures, ratcheting up pressure on Gov. Snyder’s administration as it began to publicly distance itself from the policy.

“Taxpayers deserve a meaningful school accountability system that recognizes return on investment,” he has said.

Thousands of Detroit third-graders will be held back a grade unless there is a change in state law

Michigan is speeding toward a self-imposed literacy cliff. Starting in 2020, schools in the state will be required to hold back third-graders who test below grade level in reading. While policymakers still don’t know exactly what “below grade level” actually means, no one doubts that the impact will be enormous, especially in Detroit.

More than 90 percent of students in the city’s main district would have been forced to repeat a grade were the law in effect last year, a life event with documented emotional repercussions and few clear academic benefits. Disadvantaged students (for example, English language learners) will be most affected.

Critics have called for the 2016 law that created this situation to be repealed or changed, but that would require the cooperation of lawmakers and the signature of the new governor.

Whitmer, a former state legislator who boasts a lead over her Democratic opponents in the polls, said test scores are being used as a “tool of punishment.” By contrast, Schuette re-upped the same concerns about third-grade reading scores cited by the law’s proponents.

The rules could change for charter schools that enroll thousands of Detroit children.

Charter schools have taken a deep hold in Michigan, currently enrolling about 10 percent of the state’s students, but they remain a polarizing issue.
“You’re seeing a drastic difference between the parties when it comes to charter schools,” said Beth DeShone, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter group tied to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

All three Democratic candidates have called for more oversight over charter schools, with two calling for the elimination of for-profit schools.

By contrast, Republican candidates uniformly promise to preserve the state’s 1993 charter school law, framing their proposals in the language of “school choice” used by charter advocates.

If Detroit is going to pay its urgent $500 million facilities bill, it will need cooperation in Lansing.

Many of the buildings in Michigan’s largest school district are in a state of serious disrepair. Fixing them will cost millions, and the district doesn’t just lack the money to pay for renovations — it is legally barred from asking voters to raise taxes as every other district in the state can do.

Legislative action in Lansing figures prominently on a list of possible solutions to the district’s facilities crisis. The 2016 state law that helped the district avoid bankruptcy also put strict limitations on its ability to take on new debt, limitations that district leaders would like to see lifted, at least for the most pressing repairs.

But that would take the governor’s cooperation, and while most candidates have said they would be willing to help find solutions, some expressed reluctance.

“It seems prudent for the state to exercise caution about allowing the district to take on new debt,” Schuette said.

Republican Jim Hines was more blunt: “They’re going to have to figure that out on their own.”

Experts agree that Michigan’s school funding system is badly out of date. The impact of a change would be felt disproportionately in Detroit.

Michigan’s system for funding schools is simple — too simple, according to a growing chorus of experts. Since the 1990s, schools have been funded almost completely on a per pupil basis, with almost nothing extra going to rural districts and districts that enroll lots of poor students or language learners (like Detroit).

“We have been essentially pounding the same square peg into a round hole,” said Steve Wasko of the School Finance Research Collaborative, a non-partisan group of Michigan educators.

Earlier this year, the Collaborative released a detailed study of the way schools spend money in Michigan. Its conclusion: whether or not the state is spending enough money on education, it is spending its education dollars the wrong way.

In interviews, the Democratic candidates have spoken up for a system that routes extra funding to districts with more needy students. El-Sayed has called the current system “deeply inequitable.”

Calley, who commissioned a study that found a $700 million hole in special education funding, has argued that extra money should go specifically to children with special needs, while Hines wants a funding increase to schools in the rural northern part of the state.

Schuette and Colbeck have said that, generally speaking, funding for schools does not need to be increased.

Advocates worry early childhood education could be ‘deemphasized.’

In 2014, a $130 million expansion of early childhood education gave 20,000 additional Michigan children access to pre-K programming.

The state still has a long way to go, especially in its programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. “We don’t have enough care as it is, and the quality of that care really needs to be increased across the board,” said Denise Smith, executive director of Educare, an early childhood school in Flint.

But the election on Tuesday could slow that momentum.

“There could be a de-emphasis on early childhood depending on who gets the win,” Smith said.

A ream of research point to the long-term benefits of early education programs like Head Start, but questions about the issue drew a wide range of responses from candidates when asked about it by Chalkbeat and the DJC in recent interviews. Some said early childhood education should be dramatically expanded (El-Sayed, Thanedar), some saying the current system can be improved (Whitmer and Calley), and others (Republicans minus Calley) saying it should be moved lower on the state’s list of education priorities.

The latter category includes Schuette, who said there are “important questions about the efficacy of preschool,” pointing to a study in Tennessee that suggests that the benefits of pre-K fade around the third grade.

Colbeck, meanwhile, argued that the issue has nothing to do with education. “If you’ve got a dad that’s working, mom can stay home and take care of the kids,” he said.

The winner of the gubernatorial election in November will have an outsized impact on Detroit’s children. Top (L to R): Abdul El-Sayed, Shri Thanedar, Gretchen Whitmer. Bottom: Brian Calley, Patrick Colbeck, Jim Hines.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.