A heated debate over charter schools erupted in a church basement in Detroit last week. The Michigan city has one of the highest numbers of charter schools in the entire United States. Local public school officials lamented the high percentage of students lost to charter schools and alleged the best place to educate a child is in a public school. The claim was a bold one for a school district that had only emerged from a decade of emergency state control last spring.
The Education Achievement Authority (E.A.A.) was introduced by Michigan’s Democrat Governor, Rick Snyder, in 2011. It resulted in the state’s takeover of the 15 poorest performing Detroit Public School District campuses. The plan to expand the program statewide evaporated after dismal results, and the influx of taxpayer funds to cover the district’s existing debt never materialized.
The Democrat-spearheaded E.A.A. was part of a $617-million legislative package that “resolved” the debt held by the Detroit public schools. The legislation left the district intact, so that taxes could still be collected in an effort to pay down the existing debt. The E.A.A. also created the Detroit Public Schools Community District. This new district combined the poorest-performing Detroit campuses, consolidated the student body, and utilized some of the existing staff.
Nikolai Vitti became the superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District after it was permitted to govern itself once again. He spoke vehemently against charter schools during the first State of the School event in the city. Vitti told the Detroit News that he is considering ending the practice of authorizing the creation of charter schools, but the final decision lies in the hands of the school board. “Let’s be real. This is about competition. Choice has been disastrous in some cases. We shouldn’t let schools open like corner gas stations,” Vitti said while participating in the forum alongside charter school leaders.
Competition is working in Detroit, according to academic, attendance, and graduation statistics offered up by the city’s charter school officials. Vitti’s rank comparison of the city’s charter schools with gas stations was not well received by parents who had children attending and succeeding at any of the 60 charter schools in Detroit, or parents who attended the event to get answers as to why their public schools are still failing.
Everyone Wants Out
The Detroit Public Schools Community District has lost more than half of its students to charter schools. There were 95,350 students in the district in 2016, but 53% of the children now attend charter schools. Perhaps it is self-preservation that is motivating the possible end to approvals for non-traditional schools. “Let’s fix our own house and then we can start doing things. At the end of the day, they are trying to recruit students from our system,” Vitti added.
The Detroit public school district had 10 years to fix its problems. If their efforts and state oversight had been successful, more than half of the children in the Michigan city would not be enrolled in charter schools today.
The E.A.A. was not abandoned due to a fruition of academic achievement, a reduction in behavioral problems, better attendance rates, or even the graduation rate. Governor Snyder’s big play to save the failing public schools ended abruptly for purely political reasons. The 2018 election season will soon be upon us, and it appears that no politician in Detroit wants to be associated with the failed revival effort any longer. According to a Detroit Free Beacon report, state lawmakers representing the city do not support the E.A.A. and Governor Snyder will likely need their votes to pass the bills necessary to prevent complete financial collapse of the public schools in Detroit.
If the public school districts in Detroit collapsed, taxpayers would be handed the bill for more than $500 million in “state-backed” debt. While the charter schools that educate former public school students from within the same district are thriving, the E.A.A. public schools have been faced with not only declining enrollments, but poor academic performance reports.
Even though the Detroit public schools were already heavily in debt before the E.A.A. takeover, massive and expensive building renovation projects were still embarked upon. One high school underwent a $54 million renovation, which included the construction of a new gym, an auditorium, and the installation of a must-have swimming pool. Unfortunately, the lavish new digs did nothing to curtail drug and gang activity on campuses or raise academic performance scores.
Bilking the System
Last January, federal prosecutors garnered their third guilty plea in a 5-count indictment against E.A.A. school officials. Principal Kenyetta Wilbourn Snapp and two Community District vendors were among the 18 staffers and contractors brought up on criminal charges. Snapp pleaded guilty after a year-long investigation into the Michigan Governor’s public school reform program. She might be an unfamiliar person to most Americans, since the case has been silently ignored by the national media. The story has nonetheless become infamous in Michigan. Snapp was known for carrying a baseball bat through school hallways as part of her efforts to strike as an imposing figure and thwart the mounting violence at her Detroit high school.
Snapp drove a Maserati (valued at $110,000) with Gucci vanity plates while employed as a principal at one of the poorest-performing Detroit schools, in a very low-income area. She pleaded guilty to taking close to $60,000 in bribes from a vendor who was seeking a contract with the E.A.A. school. Her 20-month prison sentence for committing federal income tax evasion and bribery was substantially reduced, because she provided information to the prosecutors that helped to further their criminal investigation into the illegal activities of others connected to the Detroit public schools. This rising star of education, who was once heralded as a “turn around specialist” for inner-city pupils, tried to explain away her corrupt actions by claiming that she had simply been trying to help underprivileged people, adding that she had used some of the bribe money to pay for the funeral of a student’s parent. Principal Snapp did get one thing right, though. “There’s a youth problem because there’s a parent problem. Most folks don’t want to own that,” the disgraced official said before federal agents raided her apartment for evidence gathering. Snapp is the mother of a 14-year-old son.
The corruption within the state-controlled Detroit public school district goes even deeper and higher up the food chain than a single building’s principal. When the probe into Governor Snyder’s public school reform program concluded, a grand total of 12 school principals were indicted on bribery and related charges, alongside two others, including an assistant superintendent. Much of the money was laundered by distributing it through gift cards, but checks were also used by members of the conspiracy. Federal prosecutors maintain that they possess the evidence to prove that approximately $100 million in kickbacks occurred during the E.A.A. years to school principals. Most of the principals “retired” before the indictments, and they will draw retirement payments from the taxpayers for the rest of their lives.
Ronald Alexander was the principal at Charles L. Spain Elementary/Middle School until he was arrested for taking $23,000 in bribes from Allstate Sales owner, Norman Shy. The school supplies vendor sells auditorium chairs, raised-line paper, and other common supplies. Shy has been indicted on charges of offering $908,500 in bribes to the 12 E.A.A. principals who agreed to use his company to supply their campuses. In the defense of Principal Alexander, a Detroit-based group of gospel singers gave accolades about Alexander’s Christian leadership and in their next breath they made the Freudian slip of admitting that he was “working toward kingdom-building.”
Assistant Superintendent Clara Flowers has also been charged with accepting $324,000 in bribes from vendors. According to federal prosecutors, one vendor even paid for putting a new roof on the assistant superintendent’s home.
The effort to reform the inner-city schools of Detroit was championed by at least two Hollywood celebrities. While the media gave plenty of airtime to these liberal donations to an E.A.A. school, they silently looked away when their heroic principal, who had accepted kickbacks, was indicted on corruption charges.
It began in February of 2017, when Ellen DeGeneres announced that Principal Ronald Alexander’s school (Spain Elementary) would be the recipient of her “biggest, most generous giveaway ever.” After his corruption trial, his school’s parent group referred to Alexander as a “hero” and as a “godly man” in a letter begging for leniency in his sentencing, which perhaps reveals the biggest party of culpability throughout the whole fiasco. The Detroit E.A.A. school received the following gifts from the Hollywood talk show host and her charitable partners.
- $50,000 in technology from Lowe’s
- $100 gift cards for every staff member and teacher at the school
- $200,000 worth of both labor and materials to fund a new school roof project
- $250,000 donation to the school from Lowe’s
- $1 from every ticket sold at a Justin Bieber concert held on a specified date
- In excess of $76,000 from a GoFundMe project that was started by Ellen DeGeneres
Even before the state placed emergency managers in charge of the Detroit Public School District in 2009, the requests for charters for non-traditional schools were on the rise. The wave of corruption arrests and ongoing lack of academic progress at the E.A.A. schools, which are now in a state of flux from the cancellation of the program, has motivated even more parents to exercise their school choice options.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District consists of 111 schools that attempt to educate approximately 49,500 students. The school board has authorized the creation of 13 charter schools on 18 campuses. Even if the district superintendent is successful in his bid to convince the school board to deny all further charter school requests, it will not stop the creation of more non-traditional learning centers in Detroit.
Grand Valley State University has authorized 26 charter schools in the Michigan city. Approximately 12,000 Detroit children attend classes at their charter schools. Grand Valley State University also gave charters to 74 non-traditional schools across the state.
Central Michigan University became the first university to authorize charter schools more than two decades ago. C.M.U. has chartered nine non-traditional schools, serving around 6,000 students, in Detroit.
The gratuitous insulting of charter schools and the desire to deny students educational options is not isolated to Detroit, nor is corruption. Thus, there is simply no stopping charter schools in Detroit or elsewhere. The real question is, why are educators endeavoring to prevent school choice?
An Insider’s View
As a former educator, born into a family of public school administrators, I firmly believe that I know the answer. It boils down to the same things that most public issues do: money, power, and politics.
When students are removed from traditional classrooms to attend charter schools, or they are homeschooled, they take the “school’s” money with them. Taxpayers hand over a portion of what they earn to educate the youth of their community. The money belongs to them, not the school.
When a student leaves a public school, the charter school receives the educational funding and the bills associated with teaching the child. Contrary to what charter school detractors claim, the “missing” money does not harm public education, because it no longer has the responsibility to cover the expenses of teaching, feeding, or providing space for that student.
I resigned from my public school position when I began to feel like a factory worker forced to rip every joy of learning from the classroom in favor of churning out little robots who were not encouraged to think for themselves or comprehend what was being taught. My job was to teach them to simply regurgitate data for state academic achievement tests.
Excellent test scores raise the stature of a school. They keep the funding flowing from the government and ward off state takeovers, like the one that happened in Michigan. District officials and teachers’ unions often use scare tactics at the beginning of each school year and during test preparation time. They strongly urge teachers to get scores up by any means possible, lest the boogie man (state emergency managers) will come and take control of the school.
This is why public school teachers have been accused of aiding classroom cheating on achievement tests, which is another topic that the mainstream media rarely pays any attention to. I have witnessed institutional cheating with my own eyes. The little nudges by the teacher when a student is about to select a wrong answer, attempts to quietly explain what a story problem is really asking, allowing friends to sit close together, or rearranging the seating to place a struggling student next to an honor roll pupil before discretely stepping out of the room for just a few moments.
The government already controls nearly every aspect of the school day, including the curriculum. That degree of control is not looked upon happily by school officials and teachers’ union leaders, but such oversight is of secondary concern. It is the stranglehold on purse strings that is once again the primary worry of public school administrators and union representatives. Whenever a state takeover happens; salary increases, incentives, and bonuses go right out the window.
The principles of a quality of education and placing the children first are not even on the radar of public school staffers, union leaders, or school board members when they argue against school choice. Self-preservation is the motivator behind the money, politics, and power plays that are engaged in by the anti-charter school crowd. Without money, there is no power, and without power, there is no way to have political influence to get even more money.
The teacher unions are mortified by the possibility of losing their favored status in the political lobbying realm. When sitting in a union meeting, only the bravest will declare themselves conservatives and raise a voice against the partisan rallying (and begging for donations) in support of Democrat candidates. Scare tactics come into play again here. The union leaders spend the bulk of their meetings with teachers and other school staff painting as frightening a picture as possible of what their futures will look like if a Republican wins an upcoming election. They fear that fiscal conservatives will obliterate their system of entitlements and then the gravy train would end.
Whenever public school teachers’ unions support Democrat candidates with massive donations and campaigning efforts, the politicians are beholden to them when they get into office, at least if they want to remain in their new positions of power. This is how we end up with educational follies like the E.A.A. in Detroit. Everyone playing the game wins, except the children and taxpayers.
Administrators at under-performing city school districts like the ones in Detroit, far too often use school funding woes and poverty levels as excuses for poor academic progress, as well as the gang violence and drug use that plague their campuses. If these things were truly the root cause of the problems, charter schools in the same areas that serve the same children, as well as poor rural school districts, would all be suffering from the same issues, yet they are not.
Of course, not all public educators are rotten. There are some dedicated educators within the public schools who are passionate about helping children. It goes without saying that this type of teacher also exists at charter schools. Public school officials should not be lambasting charter schools, but partnering with them to help all of the students, while learning from the charter schools what classroom and behavior management techniques actually work.