Detroit's Plan to Close Half Its Schools? Now They're Turning Them Into Charters

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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Remember Detroit Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb's plan shut down half the city's public schools over the next two years and raise remaining class sizes to 60 students in order to address a $327 million budget deficit? Well, now Bobb has a new strategy he's calling "Renaissance Plan 2012," and with it, he hopes to turn 41 of Detroit's schools over to charter school operators.

The plan will save the district $75 to $99 million in operating costs, and will eliminate $22 million in school shut-down costs. Bobb also projects that the district will bring in an estimated $21.85 million in revenue from leasing the buildings to the charters. But—details, details—will this move be good for Detroit's kids?

According to a Detroit Public Schools news release, Bobb told the Detroit Board of Education that no students will be relocated from their current schools, "academic failure will not be tolerated," and "the best and most innovative approaches to educating students from across the country will be introduced in the District."

That sounds great, but what Bobb doesn't acknowledge is that charter schools have been in Detroit for 15 years, 36 percent of the city's students already attend them, and they're not outperforming the regular public schools. In handing over of 41 schools to charter management organizations, Bobb is assuming that charter schools will automatically be better than the public schools already in existence, and that's simply not true. As The New York Times notes,

Charter school students score about the same on state tests as Detroit district students, even though charters have fewer special education students (8 percent versus 17 percent in the district) and fewer poor children (65 percent get subsidized lunches versus 82 percent at district schools).

In every city there are stellar charter schools, and their excellence should be celebrated and learned from. But there are also rock star public schools—and equally fantastic teachers—serving low income communities. The Times points out that Kim Kyff, a 22-year veteran who was Michigan's 2007 teacher of the year, works at the innovative and effective Palmer Park Elementary, which could be completely shuttered or be turned over to a charter under Bobb's plan.

Of course, if this plan goes through, it will be fascinating to see exactly how Bobb (or his successor) plans to hold charters accountable for student achievement gains. Given that they're not outperforming regular public schools, what consequences will be imposed on charters that don't post significant student gains? After all, if we're going to hold public schools accountable for achievement, shouldn't charters also be held to the same standards, and face the same consequences—like being closed and turned around—if they don't produce results?