Will the Detroit district and charter schools agree to work together on busing and school grading as Mayor Duggan suggests?

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan believes he has found a way to bring together the city’s warring education factions — charter schools and the district.

In his state of the city speech Tuesday, Duggan announced two programs he says can unite the two — an experiment in joint bus routes, and an effort to give report cards to all schools in the city.

It’s unclear whether key players on the two sides will find common ground on the two efforts, but Duggan already has secured one key ally: Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Charter school leaders might be a harder sell. Charter schools as recently as two years ago fought a proposal to give the city some authority over district and charter schools, and the notion grading of schools has long been controversial.

Vitti lent his endorsement in his presence — he introduced the mayor before his speech and joined him again when it ended. Vitti has been vocal about viewing charter schools as competitors. He’s vowed in the past to put charter schools “out of business.”

But he said he’s on board with the mayor’s proposals — including the grading of schools.

“I feel much more comfortable working with the mayor and Detroiters and charter schools in Detroit on a grading system than one created in Lansing,” Vitti told Chalkbeat after the speech. “I believe that the public school system and its practitioners in charter schools have more in common in understanding the day-to-day reality of raising student achievement than the [Michigan Department of Education] does.”

Vitti has pushed back against school grading before. He came under fire from state lawmakers last year during his testimony before a House committee where he was skewered for, among other things, failing to create a grading system for Detroit schools that lawmakers say is required by state law. The law they were citing, however, calls on the state education department to create that grading system, not the school district.

Vitti told lawmakers at the time that he didn’t think there should be a grading system just for Detroit that didn’t apply to the rest of the state.

But now, he said, he hopes a Duggan-led grading system would “create a school grading system that’s more fair” than something developed by the state or the legislature that would apply to all schools including urban, suburban, and rural schools across the state.

“With the mayor’s political capital, we will be able to create something that reflects the reality of working with children in Detroit,” Vitti said.

He said he wants a grading system that would be “reflective of what our work looks like in Detroit because we are so unique and different from the rest of the state.”

Vitti said he’s also on board with the proposal to get some district and charter schools to join together on a bus route that would pick up students from designated stops and drop them at as many as 12 different schools, including both district and charter schools.

Charter schools likely have the most to gain from such a system because many charter schools do not provide busing, while many district schools do. But Vitti said he nonetheless supports the idea — especially in the area of northwest Detroit where Duggan has proposed to run the pilot effort.

“It targets an area where I think we have competitive schools,” Vitti said.

Vitti said the cost of the bus route — which would be split between schools, the city and philanthropy — would be low enough that the district would get its money back even if it picked up only a few new students as a result of its participation.

And the idea, he said, might open the door for the district to explore multi-school bus routes elsewhere in the city.

“There’s a way to be more competitive and … to share resources,” he said. “If it’s an environment where resources are shared to bring Detroiters back to the city, schools will be willing to put more resources into this.”

How the mayor’s plans will play in the charter community is less clear. Chalkbeat contacted eight charter leaders for their thoughts on Wednesday, and most declined to comment.

It was primarily charter school leaders — backed by now-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she was a Michigan philanthropist and activist — who fought an effort two years ago to create a mayoral-led commission focused on schools in the city.

The commission, which would have had some oversight over district and charter schools, was conceived as a way to bring order to Detroit’s splintered school system, which is nearly evenly split between district and charter schools. But some charter school leaders worried at the time that the commission would tip the scales in the district’s favor in Detroit’s heated school environment, in which district and charter schools compete aggressively for students and teachers and rarely work together.   

Several charter school leaders, however, say they are on board with Duggan’s plan to create bus routes that would serve both district and charter schools. Among them is Nicole Wells Stallworth, president of the board of MacDowell Prep, a charter on the proposed route.

Wells Stallworth said she supports the combined busing plans because it would make her school an easier choice for parents who live outside the school’s bus routes.

“It would increase our ability to capture more students who might not live in the three-mile radius,” she said.

The school currently pays the district for using its busing, and may stand to save money if two-thirds of the cost of transporting students were covered by philanthropy and the city.

Charter leaders who spoke to Chalkbeat said they support a report card grading system for schools, but have concerns about how whether the city’s measures might conflict with the ones already used by the state.

“Schools are state entities and, if the systems collide, that’s not a good thing — not for parents, schools, or the state,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “But I do believe we can meet the needs of the city and the state and align [the measurements.] It is essential to school success.”

Duggan said the charters and traditional schools were working together due in part to a bigger problem: currently more than 30,000 Detroit residents leave the city every day to attend district and charter schools in the suburbs.

The mayor views the two proposals laid out in his state of the city address as ways to bring some of those students home.