Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news

Headlines

Week in review: “Horrible outcomes” vs. “false news”

 

Today’s the day that struggling schools across the state have been dreading for months. At 11 a.m., the state education department plans to release its annual top-to-bottom school ranking, which the state school reform office will use to decide which schools could be shuttered for poor performance.

The difficult news, which is likely to be drowned out by coverage of Donald Trump’s inauguration, caps a busy week that included Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address and the Senate nomination hearing for Betsy DeVos. Detroit schools took a bit of a beating during the DeVos hearing as Democrats tied Trump’s chosen education secretary to “horrible” outcomes in Detroit schools. DeVos pushed back saying “a lot has gone right” in Detroit schools. She knocked claims that poor results are related to lax charter school oversight as “false news.”

“I think it is important to put Detroit in context. In 1950, there were 1.8 million people living in the city of Detroit. Today there is less than 700,000 … Anyone with any means in the city of Detroit has basically left the city.”

— Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education

Read on for more on the hearing, the State of the State address and the rest of the week’s headlines. Also stay tuned for next week, when we’ll have some exciting news of our own.

The hearing

The DeVos hearing was marked by sharp partisan division as Democrats griped that they weren’t given enough time to question someone they deemed unqualified for the nation’s top education job. But DeVos made it clear in more than three hours of testimony that more time would not likely have produced more insight. She offered few policy specifics beyond reiterating her support for giving parents control over education. Here’s what we learned (and what we didn’t) during the hearing. (Our roundup was co-published this week by FiveThirtyEight).

For Detroiters, the most interesting exchange came between DeVos and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent who says his city does a much better job of holding charter schools accountable than Detroit does.

Bennet says he supports charter schools — but only if they work. “There’s no practical difference between being forced to attend a terrible school and being given a chance to attend the choice of five terrible schools,” he said.

There’s a lot of ideology on both sides of the DeVos/Detroit debate. Here’s some facts to help sort it out.

A Senate committee is planning to vote on DeVos on Tuesday but, whether or not she gets the job, these crucial education issues will largely be decided by the states.

If you missed the hearing, here’s a transcript. (Search for the word ‘Detroit’)

State of the State

Education was not a major topic during Snyder’s seventh State of the State address but the Detroit News speculated that he might be holding out for an imminent report from an education commission he appointed last year. “Hopefully it will contain meaningful suggestions,” the paper wrote.

During the speech, Snyder made no reference to the looming school closings that are expected from his office today.

The Free Press noted that the speech had many notable omissions. Among them: There was no mention of school funding or of the report last year that found many school districts don’t get enough money from the state.

Snyder did mention the new Detroit school board, which he encouraged to be “laser-focused on the kids learning with an emphasis on prudent financial management.”

He also announced a push to improve computer science education to prepare kids for high-tech jobs. “Think about your schools in your area and think about what they’re teaching,” he said. “We have a huge gap. We need to close that gap. And so I look forward to creating a work group to work with the legislature and the superintendent on coming up with great ideas about how to encourage more of this. And you’re going to find us willing to make investments.”

In other news

  • News of dreaded school closings is expected today — two days after teachers at one troubled high school rallied to keep their school open.
  • Today will be the last time the state releases its top-to-bottom school ranking. Schools will soon be judged instead by an A to F letter grade system.
  • The city of Detroit has joined the federal lawsuit that claims the state of the city’s schools violates children’s constitutional rights.
  • A lawsuit over Detroit school janitors could cost taxpayers $31 million.
  • A parent leader has this message for Detroit’s new school board.
  • On MLK Day, a Detroit high school created an exhibit to document racial prejudice and violence.
  • A historic Detroit high school has been repeatedly vandalized since it closed in 2012.
  • A Detroit charter school has locked down its Corktown building.
  • Public school supporters rallied in cities around the country as part of a nationwide demonstration.
  • A troubled suburban district is seeking community input on plans to overhaul academics.
  • A state Republican lawmaker makes a case for transferring state and federal education dollars into parent-controlled Education Savings Accounts.
  • An education advocate notes that Trump’s plan to put more education decisions in the hands of states ramps up pressure on Michigan leaders to focus on equity and excellence in schools. She called on the state to rethink its approach to early literacy, school funding and accountability and other key priorities.
  • A teachers union leader says low pay and difficult teaching conditions are to blame for an acute substitute teacher shortage.
  • A Michigan teacher has come under fire for refusing to allow his students to watch Trump’s inauguration address during class.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.