In Detroit, It’s Charter Schools Gone Wild
Writing in The New York Times, Kate Zernike documents a charter school disaster being perpetuated on Detroit children and families. It is a story of phony “choice,” not better schools. It is a warning of what can happen to education in the United States if the charter school movement is allowed to grow unchecked and unregulated.
Zernike’s opens with a focus on the experience of one family. Damian and Omar Rivera attended a series of Detroit charter schools as their mother tried to offer them a brighter future. Damian, the older son, initially was enrolled at a charter school across the street from their home. He earned top grades and dreamed of becoming an engineer, until he was accepted into a special program at the University of Michigan where he discovered he knew far less about almost everything than similar students from Detroit public schools. Ana Rivera pulled her son out of the charter and sent him to a Catholic school, where charter school A’s suddenly turned into Catholic School D’s. Damian is now a discouraged learner.
According to Zernike, so many national for-profit charter school chains entered the Detroit “market” that in some poorer communities “it easier to find a charter school than to buy a carton of milk.” Detroit has a bigger percentage of students enrolled in charter schools than any U.S. city except New Orleans, whose public school system collapsed and was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. The Detroit charter companies compete to attract students and government pay-outs by offering “cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles,” but the promise of a better education is illusory.
There are many villains in the Detroit education debacle, but the main ones are a former Michigan governor, the state legislature, and of course, the for-profit charter school companies. The force behind the 1993 state charter school law was Republican Governor John “Free Markets” Engler, who not coincidently was an opponent of teachers’ unions. Engler wanted schools that were publicly financed but independently run. In theory, choice would lead to innovation; at least that was his theory.
Michigan decided to let virtually anybody set up charter school and actually paid school districts a bonus to promote the program. For-profit companies saw the law as their chance to cash in and they rapidly moved into the Michigan school market. Currently for-profit chains operate 80% of the state’s charter schools, a much higher percentage than in any other state. The companies also became major political lobbyists in Michigan with support from some of the state’s most powerful Republican Party donors.
Market dogma produced all kinds of absurdities. In 2011, the state legislature ended In Detroit, It's Charter Schools Gone Wild: