A new charter school opening on the east side next year will look familiar to many Detroiters — and that familiarity has some people worried. The new charter school will be a publicly funded version of the private Cornerstone School. That means the school can access millions of dollars a year in state funds. But it also means the school must remove religious teachings that are deeply entwined in its curriculum.
The change has upset Cornerstone parents who had chosen the school for its religious values (and didn’t mind paying tuition). It also has triggered alarms for public school advocates who are worried that supporters of religious schools such as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are looking for “backdoor vouchers” to steer public funds to private and religious schools. Vouchers are unconstitutional in Michigan but there are no limits on how many charter schools can open here.
“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting. Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”
— Peter Hammer, director, Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University law school
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The new boss
- Now that Nikolai Vitti has officially signed a contract and started packing up his Florida house to move to Detroit, he’s making plans and laying out a hopeful agenda for fixing Detroit schools. Here’s a look at Vitti’s 100-day plan for his first few months in office.
- Among his top priorities is meeting with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather about finding a role for her in his administration. Another priority is finding schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District his four children, though the fact that some have special needs could complicate the effort.
- Vitti and his family also need to find a house in Detroit. (We at Chalkbeat are trying to help and invite our readers to add Vitti housing suggestions on Facebook).
- In interviews with Chalkbeat, the Free Press, and the Detroit News over the weekend, Vitti offered hopeful optimism — if not many specifics — about his vision for the future. He told the News that he wants Detroit to become a “mecca of traditional public school transformation.”
- In the Free Press, among other topics, Vitti addressed the delicate question of race, telling the paper that he knows some parents and educators in this majority-black city were hoping the new superintendent would be African American. He responded by noting he’d improved schools for African-American students in “some of the toughest districts in the country,” and is the father of African-American children. “I come home to the achievement gap every day,” he said.
- Vitti’s call for “better quality control” for charter schools prompted a response from a state charter school organization. “Only by working together can we make Detroit one of the truly great educational cities in America,” the group’s president wrote. Another school choice advocate urged Vitti to focus on quality control in his district, rather than worrying about charter schools.
- Vitti has an eight-point plan to boost enrollment in the district that includes improving transportation, training employees in customer service, and launching a massive marketing campaign.
- The new superintendent’s $295,000 salary has generated controversy, especially in a week when contract talks with the city teachers union hit a snag.
- Days before leaving Jacksonville, Vitti shifted principals at 11 schools in the Duval County School District. His departure has triggered a mixed response among parents and educators.
- Vitti said he plans to arrive in Detroit early next week. He’ll soon head to the elite Mackinac Policy Conference to address corporate titans and political power brokers — something that one advocate says is essential right now. (I’ll be interviewing him live there and will report back on what he says).
In other Detroit news
- Cornerstone’s switch from private school to charter school raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it.
- The Detroit Federation of Teachers reached — then scrapped — a tentative deal with the district for a new contract.
- The decision to lease a west side elementary school to a non-profit business incubator has angered some parents and community leaders and raised questions how the deal was made without community discussion.
- Court documents assert that Detroit’s main district should have paid its debt to a janitorial company with money it got last year from the state.
- A comprehensive plan to revitalize Detroit’s Cody-Rouge neighborhood includes a new STEAM camp, a mentorship program, and other efforts that will benefit local students and schools.
Across the state
- For the third consecutive year, the percentage of Michigan public school students who are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals has declined. Look up the free lunch rate in Michigan schools and districts here.
- The Detroit News says the latest effort to study how schools are funded in Michigan is likely to be little more than a “more expensive, longer version” of a school funding study that came out last year — and has largely been collecting dust since. But the study’s defenders argue that the first step to reforming Michigan schools is “an independent, bipartisan look at how we fund Michigan’s public schools.”
- Teachers are continuing their opposition to A-F grades for schools even as the state has largely backed off a plan to assign them. The head of a school research and advocacy organization, however, says letter grades would improve transparency and promote school quality.
- A set of bills passed in the state Senate this week would ban schools from suspending or expelling students solely for poor attendance.
- A fight over teacher pensions has derailed state budget talks.
- A Republican state lawmaker is likely resigning to work for U.S. Education secretary Betsy DeVos.
- The heads of two state charter school groups make their case for why charters have “helped breathe new life into the state’s K-12 landscape.”
In other news
- A $250,000 grant from Google will provide more Detroit-area high school students with hands-on science and engineering after-school programs at the Michigan Engineering Zone.
- Students at a Detroit charter school won a national chess tournament.
- A Detroit charter school student saw his winning textile design — “Fist Full of Power” — made into a 5ft x 7ft wool after winning a design competition.
- Hundreds of volunteers helped beautify three southwest Detroit schools on National Arab American Service Day last weekend.