Detroit Public Schools appear to be taking steps to improve its performance at last, starting with a change in the leadership of failing schools. DPS has reported a 58 percent graduation rate, compared with the state average of 89 percent, and in 2009 the district recorded the lowest scores ever in the 21-year history of the national math proficiency test.
Back when Gov. Granholm was left to deal with this, she proposed increasing the dropout age and creating smaller high schools to boost graduation. This could be difficult however, as the district also has a $327 million budget deficit. To combat this, closing 50 percent of its buildings was suggested. The new emergency solution for both of these problems is to convert about 40 of DPS’s 142 schools into charters. This would result in the estimated savings of between $75 and $99 million, as well as avoiding costs related to closing schools. DPS alumni who gathered for the meeting explaining the plan couldn’t understand the rationale behind this. “Why can’t traditional schools do these things?” one questioned.
I’m glad they asked! The answer in brief is because it all comes down to money. While charter schools don’t get as much per-pupil funding as conventional school districts receive, they also have more flexibility when it comes to dealing with unions. That allows school leadership to devote more time to educating students, including the ability to work with the staff to determine which teachers are performing up to expectations. Opponents worry that charters will reject struggling students, but state law requires charters to accept all students if space is available. Critics also argue that charters in Detroit have not historically scored better than the public schools, but even if this is true they have certainly not scored worse, and marginal improvements for less money is still a good option. It just shows that every system has room to grow.
Though charters are not a guarantee of academic success, they provide competition and alternates to improve the chances of finding a school which is a good fit for any student. There are currently 174 charter schools in the Detroit metropolitan area. Converting these new charters would make Detroit one of the districts with the highest percentage of students in charter schools.