charter schools

We usually think of Franklin D. Roosevelt today as the quintessential liberal, big government president -- and in today’s polarized politics, both sides look back at his New Deal as the time when things either started going right or wrong, depending.

However, FDR didn’t think of himself that way. Once, when asked about his ideology, he said something like, “I try something, and if it doesn’t work, I try something else." Those who were really on the far left in his day mainly hated him. They understood what he was trying to do better than the right wing did.

As author Gore Vidal put it, “He saved capitalism. Whether it should have been saved or not is a different question. But he saved it, all right.”

I was reminded of this today by the ongoing, ferocious debate going on in Lansing over charter schools, which are independent, for-profit, public schools. A new package of bills would lift virtually all restrictions on charters, which are now limited to areas where public school performance is below average.

What bothers me is that so much of the ongoing debate over these schools is ideological or self-serving. And too few of the lawmakers debating these proposals are asking any version of FDR’s classic question, which in this case should be put this way:

What is the best way to make sure these children are being educated? Common sense means that we should all be in favor of any system that gets that job done, by any means necessary.

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The Michigan Senate approved eliminating a cap on the number of charter schools, but not before a heated debate broke out about bullying.

The state Senate eventually approved a measure that eliminated restrictions on the number of university-sponsored charter schools in the state by a narrow margin. It now moves to the state House.

State Senator Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) says eliminating the cap might give students and parents more options, but not necessarily better options.

 "Good public schools should be nurtured. Bad ones, they should be shuttered. Good charter schools should be nurtured. Bad ones should be shuttered," said Johnson. "The legislation proposed today does everything to eliminate the limits on how many charter schools can open in the state of Michigan, but it does nothing to ensure that those are high-quality schools."

Prior to passage, discussion over eliminating the cap on university-sponsored charter schools turned into a heated debate over bullying.

Democratic state lawmakers tried to attach an amendment to the charter school proposal that would require charter schools to adopt anti-bullying policies that specify what qualifies as bullying.

Senator Glenn Anderson tried to tack an amendment onto the charter school bill that would require charter schools to adopt anti-bullying policies.

His bill required lists of reasons kids could not be picked on, including weight, gender, race and sexual orientation.

Republicans have traditionally railed against similar bullying lists, and Anderson says that’s not acceptable.

"The sad fact is that there are some people that believe that there are some kids that should be protected and not others," said Anderson.

State Senator Tory Rocca (R- Sterling Heights) argued a Republican proposal that does not specifically list which groups of kids should be protected from bullying is better. He said their bill does not make distinctions between who is protected and who is not.

"This is why, when I hear my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, with who I’ve repeatedly worked in good faith, make frankly hateful comments about people on this side of the aisle, saying ‘they want to see children bullied, they want to see children committing suicide,’ it is beneath contempt, frankly," said Rocca. 

In the end, Republicans voted against both bullying proposals, saying the issue should be dealt with at a later date.

A state Senate panel has approved a measure that would allow school districts to hire teachers through private companies. The proposal is part of a controversial education-overhaul package.

“It’s something they can do as a tool to contain costs, if that’s what they want, if they want to take a different approach to how they hire their instructional service, they have that opportunity. It’s not a mandate, it just makes it permissive,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

The state Senate Education Committee will launch two days of hearings Tuesday focused on school choice and ways to encourage more charter academies. A Senate Republican education package would lift the statewide cap on the number of charter schools academies that can be sponsored by public universities. 

The Senate GOP package would also allow more online charter schools and make it easier for parents or teachers to ask a school district to convert a traditional school to a charter.  

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

In a move likely to shock many observers, Detroit Public Schools has named Doug Ross to head its charter school office.

Ross is the CEO of New Urban Learning, which manages what’s widely considered Detroit’s most-successful charter school system. He'll help Detroit Public Schools as it expands the number of charters it authorizes from nine to 14. He’ll also oversee the process for selecting operators to convert more of the district’s traditional schools in 2012.

Ross says it’s time for critics stuck in the charter-versus-traditional school debate to move past it:

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

The emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools has named 25 people to serve as board members for the district’s five new charter schools that will open this fall.

Ola Elsaid will serve on the board of directors for the EMAN Hamilton Academy.

"I really feel like the children in Detroit deserve better. I believe this transitioning to charter schools will provide better education, better guidelines. They deserve as much as students everywhere else deserve, and I really hope we can make a difference to the schools in Detroit."

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Professors at the University of Michigan plan to launch a statewide study of Michigan’s charter schools.

One criticism of past charter studies is that the data is skewed because they compare apples to oranges; since charter school participation is voluntary, some worry the kids who sign up for charter schools have different characteristics than those who attend traditional schools.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

In the past two years, Detroit has closed 59 schools and cut 30 percent of the school system's workforce. But the district is still staring at a deficit of more than $300 million, and thousands of students continue to flee every year. In a story produced for NPR's All Things Considered, we take a closer look at a plan to help the troubled district out of its downward spiral.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

The Detroit Public Schools district is moving forward with its plan to turn dozens of its schools into charters. It’s part of current emergency manager Robert Bobb’s Renaissance 2012 plan. Just this week, 18 organizations put in bids to take over 50 DPS schools and convert them into charters.

At the top would be a charter leader who does everything from fundraising to student recruitment to academic planning. But a study out late last year by the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows charter leaders have a high turnover rate.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Charter school operators interested in turning around schools in Detroit attended a bidders’ conference to get more information about the application process.

As many as 45 Detroit schools could be taken over by charter operators over the next two years. Ahmed Saber is with Education Management Networks, which operates three charter schools in Detroit:

"There is a lot of uncertainty about the plan, and of course because of the speed that it came about, and trying to get it done soon. But maybe that’s what’s needed in a climate that’s bogged down in a climate with all the politics and all the red tape."

Detroit Public Schools hopes the charter plan will avoid having to shut dozens of schools, and help put the troubled school system in the black.

District officials say they’re looking for high-quality operators that have a proven track record – including 90 percent graduation rates and 75 percent proficiency on state math and reading tests.

Elizabeth Albert / wikipedia commons

Detroit Public Schools is offering up dozens of its struggling schools to be turned into charters. And officials say they only want “superstar” operators with a proven track record of academic excellence.

But those operators might prove difficult to attract. The schools being offered up have the lowest student achievement, declining enrollment, or are located in areas that are not expected to be targeted for redevelopment.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan RAdio

Thousands of kids in the Detroit Public Schools system could see their school close or become a charter school next fall.

Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb laid out his reorganization plan today. It calls for closing seven schools this summer and one next summer. Another 18 schools will close by the fall unless a charter school operator can be identified to run them. And 27 more schools will be offered for conversion to charter schools, but will remain open otherwise.

Bobb says national experts and the community will carefully vet the applications to find “superstar” charter operators:

"It doesn’t do us any good to have anyone come in and receive a charter if in fact they do not have a proven track record of student achievement."

Detroit Board of Education President Anthony Adams says the troubled school district can either continue to close schools, or rethink its approach completely:

"If it is our responsibility to provide the highest level of education for students within our community, then we have to embrace a different service model of what we do."

The list of 32 schools is fewer than half the troubled school district will have to close or convert to charters to erase a $327 million dollar deficit. Bobb says it will be his successor’s job to finish the job. His contract expires at the end of June.

The man in charge of the Detroit Public Schools’ finances has put forth a plan that would turn some of the district’s worst schools into charter schools. Robert Bobb presented his “Renaissance Plan 2012” to the Detroit Board of Education over the weekend. The plan calls for turning 41 of the district’s remaining 142 schools over to charter operators. District spokesman Steve Wasko says it would allow the district to move at least $75 million in expenses off its books.

“This is an alternative that would allow the Detroit Public Schools to shed all of the operating costs of the identified schools, to be borne by an outside management company or charter operator.”

Wasko says Bobb will identify those schools and open up the application process later this week.

Skeptics question whether the amount of money the plan saves would make up what the district would lose in state per-pupil funding. David Arsen, Professor of Educational Policy at Michigan State University, says it’s not quite clear how the plan would save so much money.

“If the 41 schools are converted to charters, DPS would avoid its current operations expenditures on those buildings. On the other hand, the district would also lose nearly all of the state funding it currently receives for educating the students in those schools.”

The State Department of Education would have to sign off too, because the proposal would change the deficit elimination plan the state ordered Bobb to implement. Bobb says his proposal would still advance the deficit elimination plan, while avoiding what he calls “draconian” measures, such as shutting down half the district’s remaining schools.

Handcuffs
User the commedian / Flickr

A former Highland Park charter school treasurer named Shantell Bell has been charged with embezzlement, the Associated Press reports:

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office says in a release that 37-year-old Shantell Bell was arrested Friday and was expected to be arraigned in Highland Park District Court.

Authorities say a $25,000 check request was made in 2009 for textbooks at George Washington Carver Academy.

The money later was paid to an Ohio title company. Bell's ex-boyfriend reported it to
the school, which contacted Michigan State Police.

Bell no longer works at the school.

Defense attorney Karri Mitchell declined Friday to comment on the case.

Schuette made comments to the Detroit News following the arrest:

"The theft of resources from Michigan's children will not be tolerated" 

"We must root out corruption at all levels of government to ensure the public is served. Nobody will get a free pass when they break the law."

Bell's arraignment was expected to occur this afternoon, in the 30th District Court.

The Knowledge is Power Program, known as KIPP, is a national network of charter schools. There are over 80 KIPP Schools across the country, and Detroit leaders are in talks with KIPP to open charters in the city. Michigan Radios Jennifer Guerra and Mercedes Mejia visited a KIPP school in New Orleans and have this look at the experience.

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