Detroit's Education Rehab: Are Charters A Solution?

May 11, 2011

Sarah Hulett

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.

"If you do the math and you look at the numbers, the question is: Do we continue to close schools here in the city of Detroit to have more vacant and burned-out buildings? Or do we take a bold step forward to create DPS as a service provider of education?" asks Anthony Adams, president of the Detroit Board of Education.

The "bold step" Adams wants to see would convert as many as 45 of the district's traditional schools to charters.

Financially, this transition would help the district shed staffing expenses, including costly pension obligations. It would get management fees and lease revenues from charter operators. And it wouldn't have to shoulder the costs associated with shutting schools down, securing them and demolishing them.

Academically, the hope is that charter operators would be able to turn around schools with low achievement. Robert Bobb, the state-appointed emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, proposed the charter idea.

"Let me be clear," he says. "We will only accept proposals from those that have been successful in terms of student achievement."

Jose Afonso says his company's schools have that track record of success. He's with SABIS Educational Systems, which operates charter schools in nine cities across the U.S.

Afonso attended a bidders' conference the district held recently to answer questions about the plan. He says SABIS is interested in taking over more than one Detroit school. But he says getting a school ready by this fall won't be easy.

"There just is not a whole lot of time to recruit staff, to diagnose the students, to enroll the students," Afonso says. "It's doable, but it's going to be challenging."

The Right Context For Charters?

Some charter school experts say Detroit could have problems attracting the kind of high-caliber charter outfits that are familiar names on the national scene.

For one thing, many of those companies focus on starting schools from scratch. And there's also the question of who will lead Detroit Public Schools after June, when Bobb's contract with the state expires.

That question is also on the mind of Keith Johnson. He's the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which opposes the charter school conversion plan.

"It sounds to me and it looks to me like this is planned liquidation," he says. "And let's face it: The emergency manager, when he leaves on or before June 30, he will no longer be held accountable for whatever ends up happening with DPS. So what does he really have to lose?"

As for parents, many aren't sure what to think of the plan. Some say they'd rather see their children's school convert to a charter than close.

Others, like Nicole Chapman, are more skeptical.

Chapman's two boys are each in a school that's targeted for closure or charter conversion. She volunteers five days a week in her older son's special needs classroom.

Chapman says she worries her sons might not get the special education services they need in a charter school. And she also wonders whether they would continue to get bus service.

"I don't have friends that have cars, and family that have cars," she says. "So my kids don't have options. Every school's closed. So walking distance is not an option."

No matter what, though, Chapman's sons will find themselves in new schools this fall. They'll find out by June whether their schools will close or convert to charter. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.