Only in Betsy DeVos’ Michigan can schools be “reformed” by closing them


The news broke on January 20, 2017 that as many as 38 schools could be closed in Michigan, 24 of those in Detroit, due to “poor academic performance.” Parents in the city, and throughout the state, were understandably stunned, as this announcement represented an abrupt change in the state’s previous position on school closings:

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has switched its stance on how soon Detroit’s poorest performing schools can be closed. His administration previously said a massive $617 million Detroit Public Schools bailout legislation prevented officials from closing any of the city’s worst schools prior to 2019 because of certain stipulations in the school rescue package.

Those who have paid close attention to Michigan politics will be able to trace the line between the mention of the “school rescue package” and the influence of our new Secretary of Education, West Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos. As I’ve written about previously, here, Ms. DeVos’ fingerprints were all over this “rescue package”:

After years of mismanagement by the Snyder administration, the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools could no longer be ignored, and state lawmakers decided that drastic measures needed to be taken.

A solution that included a Detroit Education Commission with authority to open and close charters was approved in the state Senate, but was then voted down in the House, due almost entirely to DeVos-applied pressure:

At one point, Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) posted a picture on Facebook of [GLEP’s Gary) Naeyaert watching the legislative action from the House gallery. Yanez’s post said, “The masters watch their minions from the gallery making sure they follow their orders on #DPS bill$.”

Asked about the post this week, Yanez said, “Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist or maybe I just see what’s placed in front of me.”

“When I step out in the hallway and I see the people from GLEP and the people from the charter schools … I know why they’re there,” he added. “I think it’s pretty clear.”

It became clear that Betsy and Dick DeVos were the major players in the negotiations to replace the Senate plan with a House version that carved out special protections for school choice and charter schools, even going so far as to “freeze out” a leading Republican senator and Detroit’s mayor from the deliberations:

The role of donors and groups they fund has been so impactful in the ongoing Detroit Public Schools (DPS) debate that one lawmaker involved in the negotiations alleged this week that it was “the only factor” in a recent House vote. And some are even raising concerns about who’s being given the chance to sway lawmakers on the matter. They note that the lead GOP senator on DPS and the mayor of Detroit requested but weren’t granted the opportunity to present to House Republicans in a closed-door caucus meeting. But the House GOP says that had to do with timing.

According to campaign finance disclosures, six of the stakeholders trying to sway the future of education in Detroit and their relatives have given roughly $10 million over the last decade to sitting state lawmakers, their caucuses and their political parties. The contributions have touched just about everyone in the Legislature.

The biggest donors have been members of the West Michigan-based DeVos family who are charter school proponents. Over the last 10 years, members of the family have given at least $6.1 million directly to the Michigan Republican Party, about $752,200 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and about $1.1 million to the House Republican Campaign Committee.

And now, groups the DeVos family supports are urging lawmakers to safeguard charter schools and school choice in whatever DPS solution is reached. It’s something House Republicans did when they voted on a package last week.

“It’s crystal clear that had the DeVoses not been opposed to this, it would have had a different future,” one source involved in the negotiations alleged.”

It would appear that two things are true based on the previous account:

  • 1. The complete lack of accountability with respect to Detroit’s charter schools is completely attributable to the financial influence of Betsy DeVos and her family’s foundations and organizations, such as the Great Lakes Education Project.
  • 2. The DPS “rescue package” was like throwing a dumbbell to a drowning person. The only thing it did was to exacerbate the problems in DPS schools by unfettered competition and choice by providing even more…competition and choice.
  • A reasonable person might wonder at this point how closing schools would help improve them. Well, reasonable persons seem to be in short supply in Michigan’s school reform community. Consider, for instance, that the state’s Office of School Reform/Redesign was moved out of the Department of Education and into the Department of Technology, Management, and the Budget in 2015. Why?

    Snyder has no direct control over the Michigan Department of Education, which has housed the state reform office since it was created by the Legislature in 2009. The department is run by the soon-to-retire State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who is hired by an elected State Board of Education. That eight-member board has a strong Democratic majority, unlike the Legislature and governor’s office, which is controlled by Republicans.

    The move garnered the predictable responses from the various stakeholders involved in education in the state. Then-President of the state school board, John Austin, was dubious of the move:

    “Moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools,” Austin said.

    He said it would also undermine the ability of the board, the governor’s office and the next state superintendent to work together.

    Dan Quisenberry from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state’s charter school booster group, was far more positive about the change:

    “It’s important that we establish policies and take action to hold all schools accountable for their performance, and the governor’s decision is a step in that direction,” Quisenberry said. “Our students only have one shot at an education, so it’s vital that each of them is in a school that’s delivering a quality education.”

    Even other local charter advocates, however, think the charter sector in Detroit is out of control. Excellent Schools Detroit, an education reform organization in the city, characterizes the situation like this:

    Detroit has the third largest percentage of charter school students in the country at 37%. However, the ecosystem is chaotic with 32 separate authorizers and lots of operators but brand name operators are glaringly absent.

    So, who is responsible for carrying out this draconian plan to close 24 Detroit schools? The Department of Technology, Management, and the Budget’s Office of School Reform is led by Natasha Baker, and Ms. Baker’s profile looks a lot like the typical fast-track school reformer.

    After college, Ms. Baker taught for two years, and then began her dizzying ascent up the education reform food chain. She earned her master’s degree from Howard University and then spent two years in New Orleans, post-Katrina, “first as a middle school principal and then as the chief academic officer for FirstLine Schools where she oversaw four charters.” From there she has rarely spent more than a year or two in any position, working her way up the ladder from principal, to chief academic officer, chief schools officer, school improvement consultant, deputy superintendent, and eventually, state school reform officer.

    During this time, Ms. Baker was formulating a rather odd and troubling plan: to develop a public boarding school for black boys in Detroit: “I’ve done a lot of research on inner-city education, and Detroit has always been on the top of lists of problems with boys of color,” she says. “Higher death rates, higher illiteracy rates.” Her model, such as it is, is based on two wildly different boarding schools: SEED, an inner-city charter boarding school in Washington, DC, and the Cranbrook School, a private college prep boarding school located in the upper middle class Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.

    Leaving aside the controversial and disturbing history of boarding schools in the United States, the model itself is extraordinarily expensive and difficult to implement:

    There’s no doubt that the school Baker envisions would be an expensive proposition. At SEED, for example, the per-pupil annual cost is about $35,000, according to a New York Times report. Baker says there are feasible ways to reduce that cost, though she didn’t refute the estimates.

    That compares to $7,580 per pupil Detroit charter schools receive from the state. Her school would have to raise funds for the difference.

    On top of all that, there is the cost of the school itself. For a location, Baker is targeting Southwest Detroit Hospital, abandoned since 1991. On the plus side, the facility is large enough to house and educate the 400 students DCPA would have (100 per each high school grade level). On the downside are the undeniably high renovation costs of turning an abandoned hospital into a school with dormitories, where students would receive three meals a day and be watched over by resident advisers.

    The costs don’t improve closer to Detroit, where the tuition for room and board for one year at the elite Cranbrook School is $45,200. Ms. Baker didn’t seem to have many ideas for where the missing funding might come from.

    Without a charter authorization in hand, Baker is having little luck in gaining attention from the philanthropists and grant providers whose support is crucial if something as expensive as a public boarding school is going to be financially feasible. Conversely, charter authorizers are reluctant to green-light a school that lacks secure funding.

    In spite of lacking the funding needed to open her proposed boarding school, or even a charter authorizer, Ms. Baker went so far as to apply for a planning grant for $110,000 from the Michigan Department of Education in 2010, when she was working for a charter management company in New Orleans. As is far too common in the charter industry, the grant was approved, Baker received the $110,000, the boarding school never opened, and there was never even a feasibility report submitted to the Department of Education explaining how the money was spent.

    Instead of being held accountable by the Department of Education for what was essentially a “bad loan,” Ms. Baker was hired in 2012 as the “Chief Schools Officer for their Detroit Rising College Prep Schools. In 2013, Emergency Financial Manager Roy S. Roberts announced that she had been appointed to the position of Chief Innovation Officer of Charter Schools in DPS.”

    While Baker seems to have abandoned her plan for an inner-city boarding school in Detroit, she appears to be committed to closing as many of the city’s schools as possible, as quickly as possible–perhaps to clear the way for even more charter, private, and religious schools in Detroit in anticipation of Ms. DeVos’ stated intention of expanding private school voucher programs across the nation.

    Predictably, DeVos’ education reform watchdog group, the Great Lakes Education Project, tried to pour cold water on the criticisms of Baker’s plans to close schools. GLEP’s executive director, Gary Naeyeart, had the following to say as recently as last August:

    The Governor’s office doesn’t foresee the closure of more than 10 schools for chronically being within the state’s lowest 5 percent performing schools and that any that are closed will be after consultation with local officials (See “SRO: No Priority Schools Closing Immediately,” 8/17/16).

    However, the panic that has ensued among local officials has been so pronounced, Austin is calling on Gov. Rick SNYDER to “rein her in and get sensible about bringing in resources” and additional help to those schools where the students consistently perform poorly on state tests.

    Because the way he sees it, Baker’s goal is to shut down large numbers of public schools so privately run charters can come in to skim profits off Michigan taxpayers to the detriment of the state’s poorest children.

    In retrospect, Naeyaert (who has had more, umm…pressing problems to deal with recently) was pretty much spectacularly wrong, and Austin was presciently correct: Baker’s plan to close schools was much more far-reaching than GLEP had predicted, and the timeline was moved up by 2 years with zero advanced notice. The result has been to throw thousands of Detroit’s families into a state of chaos and uncertainty.

    Many in Detroit’s education community are opposed to Ms. Baker’s plans.

    Alycia Meriweather, the district’s interim superintendent, said she’s thankful the board “is willing to fight to keep our schools open.”

    “At the end of the day we are keenly aware that we have to make some improvements,” Meriweather said.

    The management team, Meriweather said, is working around the clock to develop improvement plans for those schools. Within the next 10 days, she said, those plans will be finalized.

    “There are going to be some very different approaches being made, under local control,” Meriweather said.

    “I don’t work in this district to close schools,” Meriweather said. “I work in this district and I took this job to improve school … I’m confident that we’re going to be able to move that forward.”

    The state’s teachers unions also object to the school closing plan, and wonder why state officials haven’t worked harder to identify the causes for the challenges these schools have faced before turning to the radical “solution” of mass closings:

    “First, closing schools without finding out why those schools are struggling isn’t a viable long-term strategy,” said Steven Cook, Michigan Education Association’s president. “Why have these schools been struggling for so long? What’s the cause? For many years, MEA has advocated for rigorous educational audits of struggling schools to get to the bottom of why they aren’t succeeding.

    “Simply closing schools and up-ending the lives of students won’t fix any problems if the root causes aren’t adequately addressed.”

    Sec. DeVos, Gov. Snyder, and Ms. Baker don’t seem to appear troubled by the fact that their approach to “school reform” is based on untested and unproven business practices more than educational or pedagogical–or even moral or ethical–principles, and the decision to close 38 schools is hardly designed to give parents and children more “choice.” They are playing a cruel game of educational “whack-a-mole,” indiscriminately shutting down schools across the city without any apparent concern for what these moves will mean for Detroit’s children.

    Detroiter Leyonne Harrell, 29, said he recently moved into a house near Thirkell Elementary-Middle School because the school sits nearby. Now he has to consider the possibility of sending his son Andre, 8, to another school, with Thirkell being among the bottom 5 percent for the past three years.
    “It’s bad because this is the local school for my son,” Harrell said. “This is like walking distance. Hopefully, we’ll find another school and hope that one won’t be another one on the list.”

    Ms. Baker, on the other hand, seems alarmingly aloof and unconcerned about the effects of her plan on Detroit’s citizens:

    “If a parent wants to stay in a chronically failing school, they’re well within their right,” Baker said.

    Ms. Baker appears not to have learned that there are two purposes for evaluation: accountability (she “gets” that one), and the improvement of instruction. Focusing on accountability without improving the capacity of schools and teachers to use the results of systematic school evaluation to improve their practice isn’t education–it’s punishment.

    When a school is closed, it creates more problems than when your local auto dealer or bank branch closes. While you may have to find a different place to buy a new car or cash your checks, closing a school disrupts an entire community.

    Closing a school fractures families, scatters colleagues, and damages neighborhoods. Schools are not just places that children go during the day when their parents go to work–they are complicated, complex ecological and social systems that provide spaces for learning communities to develop and flourish. Schools are places where children go to feel safe, and to feel valued. Schools are places full of music, movement, art, critical thinking, food, lively discussions and play.

    Closing a school is like ripping apart a family.

    When children struggle in public school, we teach them more, and we teach them harder. We don’t punish them for what they don’t know.

    We stay after school, or come in early, and we try new strategies in an attempt to reach them in different ways. We don’t close the classroom door.

    We call home, and talk to their parents to try to find out if there is something happening at home that’s getting in the way of their learning. We don’t suspend them from school.

    Closing a school is punishment, not improvement. It’s educational malpractice, and indicative of an intellectually-barren approach to thinking about the problems faced by schools, teachers, and children.

    Closing a school is never a viable option for helping communities, schools, and families.

    Now, I can think of an educational institution whose closing would improve the quality of education in Detroit and in Michigan: the Michigan Department of Technology, Management, and Budget’s Office of School Reform.