What’s Next for Detroit’s Troubled Schools?

Today Education Next published an article by Ashley Jochim, Michael DeArmond and me about the state of the Detroit public school system. Given single digit academic proficiency scores, a weak and splintered charter sector, and a crumbling urban infrastructure, it’s tough to be optimistic about Detroit. But we are, especially given the news that Detroit’s plan for emerging from bankruptcy has been approved. The city’s redevelopment plans are underway but will fail without a plan for redeveloping the city’s school system.

The time we spent in Detroit left us with the view that the city has the potential to be the next great example of urban school system renewal, as soon as civic and state leaders are ready to step up. The city has isolated examples of quality schools and charter authorizers, parents who are empowered to be active choosers, and wide-open spaces for education entrepreneurs.

In early December, as part of our Making School Choice Work project, CRPE will release the results of a parent survey illustrating how families experience school choice in eight cities, including Detroit. Led by Excellent Schools Detroit, the civic community is working hard to address the challenges facing Detroit’s families. However, the number of agencies charged with delivering public oversight for district and charter schools makes it nearly impossible to get quality under control or to coordinate services on behalf of families.

What Detroit needs is a portfolio manager who can

• Manage the actions of the dozen charter authorizers, the Detroit Public Schools, and the Educational Achievement Agency to make sure schools that don’t meet a quality bar are closed and replaced with something better. The dramatic oversupply of public schools has turned what should be a healthy competitive market into a frenetic bidding enrollment war for students.
• Attract high-quality school providers, teachers, and school leaders.
• Engage Detroit’s land developers, investors, mayor, and community leaders to address safety and transportation issues so families don’t have to default to their academically failing neighborhood school just because they have no way to get their child to a safer, more effective school.
•Invest much more heavily in information systems. Parents in Detroit like having choices and are trying hard to be smart choosers, but they need more help to sift through their options and find a good fit. Local nonprofits have started on this work, but more is needed.
•Leverage federal, state, and private dollars into systems to equalize funding, pay for school start-ups and human capital training, and develop new information and enrollment systems to help families navigate their choices and become savvy school choice consumers.
•Craft a viable plan to remake schools operating under Detroit Public Schools. Though currently the district is neither financially nor academically viable, nearly 50,000 students, many of them with severe physical and emotional disabilities, need better educations immediately. It is not morally acceptable to wait for either the charter school market to improve or for the current district leaders to come up with a plan. A viable intervention strategy is needed now.

The path forward for Detroit cannot be copied from elsewhere. Leadership is needed by the Mayor, the Governor, charter authorizers and advocates, and community activists, and it will require getting beyond ideological battle lines and toward a vision of collective action to revive what once was a great city. The challenges are enormously complex and call for creative and hard-nosed solutions. But shame on all of us if we can’t find a solution for our most dismal urban school systems.

– Robin Lake

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