Headlines

Week in Review: Amid DeVos ‘Wild West’ critiques, a new charter school says strict state laws are standing in the way of diversity

PHOTO: Ali Lapetina
The new Detroit Prep charter school aims to be the city's first intentionally diverse charter school.

Michigan schools have gotten scrutiny from across the country this week after President-elect Donald Trump nominated local philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

Among the wide-ranging critiques that have gotten an airing: that DeVos has backed a lax “Wild West” charter school system that has damaged Detroit schools..

So it’s a little surprising to hear a charter school leader say regulations are standing in her way. But that’s exactly the critique coming from the co-founder of Detroit’s newest charter school, Detroit Prep, who says in our latest story that state rules could stop her from enrolling a diverse student body. Her workaround: enroll students in a way that critics call “exclusive” and “sneaky.”

“I think we’re failing our kids if we allow all kids to sit in rooms with kids that only look like them and that are from the same background so if people think we’re going about it in a bad way, I welcome that feedback because we want to hear all perspectives, good and bad.”

Kyle Smitley, co-founder, Detroit Prep

On DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist vaulted to a national stage:

Right to read?

Detroit school children have no fundamental right to literacy, according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s attorneys. While Snyder says courts should recognize the “importance of literacy,” he argues the state isn’t required to give every child a decent education. “Literacy is a component or particular outcome of education, not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution.”

The governor’s arguments came in response to the Detroit schools lawsuit, which claims that deplorable school conditions in the city have violated children’s Constitutional rights. Lawyers for the seven children who brought the suit objected to Snyder’s lawsuit response. “Each day that the state chooses to fight this lawsuit is another day of education lost that may never be recovered,” one lawyer said. “Would the state try to wash its hands of this matter if the students suffering were not children of color from low-income families?”

The Detroit News says the lawsuit put the state “in the awkward position of arguing that students don’t have a right to literacy,” adding “but that doesn’t’ mean Snyder and education officials are indifferent to the quality of students’ education.” The paper called on the state to improve local schools but said, “Trying to force better outcomes through the courts … isn’t the way to do this.” (A local radio host disagrees.)

In Detroit schools:

  • A new charter school is Detroit’s most diverse public school. Here’s why it might not stay that way.
  • The Detroit Promise scholarship program has expanded to include free access to four-year colleges for every Detroit high school grad with good grades and strong test scores. Officials say Detroit is now the largest city in the country to offer scholarships to all of its graduates, with kids who don’t qualify for the four-year scholarships entitled to a free ride at local community colleges.
  • A Detroit teachers union leader got a major raise.
  • A yearlong effort by the Free Press to listen to the challenges facing Detroit children included claims from students that they haven’t been properly prepared for college. “DPS did not prepare me for the ACT,” one recent Cody High School grad said. “It was some stuff on it that I knew, but some of that stuff, I know for sure I was never taught.”
  • The paper is highlighting programs that could benefit Detroit kids, including a curriculum that helps young children learn social-emotional and problem-solving skills.
  • A local foundation is giving Detroit’s main school district a quarter million dollars to help the district grow and harvest vegetables to serve in school meals.
  • Stalled plans to build a large urban agriculture park on the site of the shuttered Kettering High School in Detroit have picked up steam.
  • Wayne County taxpayers will start feeling the pinch from the school tax increase when tax bills go out this week.
  • A network of charter schools in Detroit and Dearborn requires students to complete a career-focused internship and senior project in order to graduate.
  • A local advocate called for expanding after-school programs to help low-income kids in Detroit.
  • Two local philanthropists are funding a program at a Detroit school that helps introduce children to yoga, health, fitness and nutrition.
  • A local non-profit executive says Detroit needs to do two things to fix its schools.
  • The Detroit Public Schools Community District is planning a parade on Monday to toast the high school football teams that won the state’s Division I and Division 2 championships — the first time in state history that both winners are from the same district.

Across the state:

  • An effort to force new teachers out of state pension plans is moving forward in Lansing despite testimony that the move will cost billions of dollars.
  • In a state with low reading scores, this west Michigan effort shows promise.
  • One school choice advocate called on the state to “revamp its school rating system” to better help parents make decisions about where to enroll their children. The state, he wrote, “needs a fairer measuring tool that doesn’t punish schools for enrolling a lot of kids with learning struggles.”
  • A suburban high school teacher is working with students to create a museum to honor his school’s history.

Week In Review

Week in review: A new year, a new Detroit school board — and maybe soon a new lawsuit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.

Now that we’ve started a new year, the new Detroit school board is officially in charge of the state’s largest district. After spending the last two months in intensive orientation workshops, the seven members of the new board will be sworn in during a ceremony at Cass Tech on Wednesday. Then it’s time to get to work. In interviews with Chalkbeat, board members said their top priorities include a national search for a permanent superintendent — and possibly going to court to prevent the state from shuttering low-performing schools.

“I’m a community developer. I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community… I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”

— Sonya Mays, member, new Detroit school board

Read on for more about the new board, the rest of the week’s education news, plus a few headlines that you might have missed over the holiday.

 

New year, new board

 

DeVos division

  • The U.S. Senate is scheduled to hold its first hearing next week on the Betsy DeVos nomination for education secretary. It’s one of several controversial hearings that critics say were scheduled for the same day to reduce public scrutiny.
  • DeVos has been the subject of sharp debate since her nomination. The Christian Science Monitor writes that Michigan’s schools story “offers perhaps the best preview of the free-market style education policies that could soon be getting a wider roll-out across America.”
  • In dueling op/eds in the News, a Republican state lawmaker says DeVos will free local schools from burdensome federal and state mandates, while a former Democratic party and Detroit schools spokesman says DeVos is “scary on steroids.”

In other news:

Headlines

Week In Review: What $617 million can’t buy

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

A massive infusion of cash from Lansing last summer might have given Detroit’s main school district a new lease on life. But it didn’t solve enormous problems like the teacher shortage that has forced the district to end a reading program just as the consequences for struggling to read became more severe.

And while the money helped launch a new Montessori program that has attracted some skeptical families to the district, our story this week notes that ongoing instability in the district has made the program’s future unclear.

“DPS unfortunately is the king of let’s start it, let’s try it for a minute or two, then — oop, no, scrap. But my hope is that with a lot of parent involvement and a lot of community support, we can make sure the program grows and is pushed forward.”

— Yolanda King, Detroit public school teacher and Montessori parent

Read on for more on these stories as well as an update on when struggling Michigan schools could learn if they’ll face closure next year. 

On DeVos, charters and truth

How could philanthropist Betsy DeVos’ past in Michigan predict her future in Washington? That was the question again this week as the country continued to get up to speed on President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary pick.

  • “A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation,” the New York Times concluded after scrutinizing DeVos’ record in Michigan, including her role last spring in blocking an oversight commission that advocates hoped would bring some order to Detroit’s district and charter schools.
  • A columnist suggested DeVos would face an easier confirmation process if she came out in favor of improved oversight and transparency for Michigan charter schools.
  • A Free Press editor blasted DeVos for distorting charter school data to claim the privately run schools are more successful in Detroit than they really are.
  • DeVos got a public defense from state Attorney General (and likely candidate for governor) Bill Schuette — who has received $102,800 in campaign contributions and $20,000 in administrative support from the DeVos family since 2009.
  • Are DeVos’ voucher dreams part of an evangelical Christian mission? One observer who has studied the Christian right thinks so.

In Detroit:

  • A new Montessori program for 150 kids in three Detroit public schools has successfully lured some families that might otherwise have chosen private, charter or suburban schools. But that doesn’t mean the program will survive. No definitive decisions have been made,” a district official said.
  • A teaching shortage has forced DPS to cut its reading intervention program — just as a state law makes the consequences for failing to read more severe. “It’s absolutely absurd and inexplicable,” fumed one Reading Recovery teacher who was reassigned to a regular classroom.
  • Some members of the new Detroit school board spelled out their goals for the coming year.
  • Detroit’s main school district qualifies for so much state and federal funding due to its high number of poor and special needs students that it has one of the highest per-pupil funding levels in the state.
  • A tutor who billed DPS for $684,644 worth of work he never did has pleaded guilty to theft and fraud charges.
  • Detroit high school students learned how to build green infrastructure.
  • Students from suburban school brought holiday gifts to kids at a Detroit charter school.

Across the state:

  • Michigan officials originally said they would identify the state’s lowest-performing — and most at-risk — schools by the end of the year. Now they’ve pushed back their timeline, meaning that anxious Michigan schools will have to wait for the new year to find out if they’re in danger of being shut down.
  • One bill headed to Gov. Rick Snyder could cut down on suspensions and expulsions in Michigan schools. Another would bar schools from using seclusion and restraint to discipline children.
  • Fewer Michigan school districts are broke.
  • The tense environment since election day has triggered complaints of 19 hate or bias incidents in schools.
  • The state appeals court found that a suburban teachers union “took deliberate action” to lock in union dues before the state’s right-to-work legislation took effect.
  • Flint students will get extra help through a $2 million grant to Michigan State University.

From Chalkbeat:

  • Why every online school in Indiana got an F on this year’s state report card.
  • How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness.
  • Chronic absenteeism is lower in New York City charter schools than in district schools, report finds,
  • Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding its “innovation zone” experiment.
  • Why Tennessee’s turnaround district might lose some power.