I spent the beginning of last week in Detroit, a city that spawned one of the nation’s early charter laws, now home to one of the most unregulated charter sectors I have seen. I believe that Detroit families are better off as a result of choice. There are some very strong schools that wouldn’t exist otherwise, and the school district, whose performance has been dismal for decades, is trying to find a way to compete with charters. But while Detroit charter schools slightly outperform district-run schools (according to CREDOs study), that is saying very little. Most of these schools are doing nothing to change the life trajectory of Detroit’s children.
Of course, given that I’ve studied charter schools for nearly 20 years, I know that there are many low-performing ones. But it was disturbing to hear firsthand about parents’ unfulfilled struggles to get their kids a good education and civic leaders’ futile efforts to get control of quality.
There are dozens of Detroit charter schools that should probably be closed immediately. Competition for students is so vicious that schools are reportedly bribing parents with iPads and cash to drive up enrollment. Yet despite all of this competition, charter school quality is stagnant, and more charters are being approved every year by university and community college sponsors who operate outside the city and with little or no accountability for their actions. I heard from parents who do feel empowered, but are having a horrible time navigating their choices and figuring out how to enroll in schools. I heard about schools that closed midyear, leaving families to fend for themselves. I heard about schools that didn’t offer any counseling or special education services to students who come from severely distressed neighborhoods.