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.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

parting ways

No fireworks in Houston as school board bids farewell to Carranza

PHOTO: Houston Independent School District
Houston school board members and elected officials discussed the departure of their superintendent Richard Carranza, who will be New York City's next schools chief.

Houston’s school board didn’t put up a fight Tuesday while ironing out the details of superintendent Richard Carranza’s departure to become New York City schools chancellor.

The Houston Independent School District board will have to negotiate the terms of Carranza’s leave since his contract runs through August 2019. But the board’s response to his move lacked the theatrics of last week’s Miami-Dade County school board emergency meeting to discuss the city’s first pick for chancellor, Alberto Carvalho.

That emergency meeting stretched on for hours with tearful pleas from students and board members who begged Carvalho to stay. In the end, Carvalho rejected the New York City job on live television.

At a press conference, Houston leaders put up no such fight for Carranza, who has only been in office there less than two years. Board trustee Sergio Lira said he expects the negotiations to end Carranza’s contract will go smoothly.

“We’re going to release him from his contract with the least harm,” Lira told Chalkbeat.  “We want to wish him the best and don’t want to impede his departure.”

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Carranza would replace retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down at the end of March. The mayor’s pick came as a surprise in both New York City and Houston, as Carranza’s name had not surfaced publicly during the months-long search for a successor.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the president of Houston’s board of trustees, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, said Carranza had given his two weeks notice — “give or take.” He is expected to continue working during that time, rather than take leave.

Houston appears stoic, even though Carrzanza’s abrupt departures adds to an already long list of challenges. The school system faces a $115 million budget gap, the threat of state takeover and ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are aware of our challenges and we each have our own responsibility in solving our challenges,” Skillern-Jones said at the press conference.

Peppered with questions about how Carranza’s departure could add to the list of difficulties, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner interjected:

“Enough on Carranza. I wish him well,” Turner said. “But now the focus is on the 215,000 kids who are still here, depending on the rest of us to come together.”

Monica Disare contribute reporting.