Giving kids a better education matters; our future is doomed if we don't

Aug 12, 2014

You probably know that Metro Detroit was hit by an amazing rainstorm last night that completely paralyzed traffic.

I may know this better than most people, since I spent several hours in a rather unexciting Coney Island in Warren.

Sometimes, it is probably good to be reminded that there are things we really can’t control, such as the weather. But there are other things we can do something about, such as education.

This occurred to me in the Coney at one o'clock this morning, as I was reading an order Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, issued about charter schools.

Last month, the Detroit Free Press issued a massive investigative report on the state’s charters, a study so intensive it took the newspaper eight days to publish all of it.

The newspaper series revealed that some charter schools were indeed doing well. But it also found a pattern of widespread abuses, financial irregularities, and a lack of accountability. The reporters also found schools that had been failing for years, but which nobody moved to close down.

Well, yesterday Flanagan finally moved to take some action. Michigan has 40 entities authorized to charter schools. Yesterday, the superintendent announced that 11 of these either have schools that aren’t meeting the required standards, aren’t providing sufficient oversight, or both.

However, he isn’t closing any schools. Flanagan just said that the authorizers that aren’t meeting the standards have until October 22 to fix their deficiencies. If they don’t, he said, “We’re not closing down their existing charter schools. They just won’t be able to open any new charters until their deficiencies are fixed and the academic outcomes of their schools are improved.”

Frankly, I think that’s way too timid. If the troubled authorizers, which include entities as diverse as the Detroit Public Schools and Grand Valley are failing to meet standards, it seems a matter of common sense to stop them from chartering more now.  

You would think those charter schools having difficulty would welcome this reprieve, and a few did.

Veronica Conforme, the new head of the Education Achievement Authority, pledged to work harder to be more transparent. She also said she was willing to work to improve any area where her schools needed to improve.

But the response from the charter schools’ top lobbyist was extremely discouraging.

Once again, Dan Quisenberry, the head of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, not only refused to admit  that anything was wrong anywhere, he defiantly hinted that he doesn’t accept the state superintendent’s authority.

“The report released today does nothing to move us toward a better educational system,” he said, adding that the superintendent’s decree “confuses the issue, misleads the media, ignores the law.”

That attitude is worse than useless. Last night I was also copied on a message Chuck Fellows, president of a charter school in Brighton, is sending to the state board of education.

He sees all this as an opportunity to have a candid dialogue about the only thing that matters: how to improve the way kids learn.

That, of course, is the only thing that matters. Forget that, and they, and we, and the schools really are all doomed.           

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.