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U.S. education chief knocks ‘uneven’ Michigan charter schools but urges caution in school closings

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King.
EWA/Katherine Taylor

The Obama administration’s top education official urged Michigan school leaders to think through the consequences of closing potentially dozens of struggling schools in Detroit and across the state.

“The key question is: What are they being replaced with?” asked U.S. Secretary of Education John King in a Wednesday interview with Chalkbeat. “What are the opportunities that will be available to students instead?”

The secretary says Michigan has a poor track record for improving schools — and such poor supervision over charter schools that the privately-run, publicly funded schools do not offer a strong alternative to district schools.

“I worry a lot about the charter sector in Michigan, which has very uneven performance,” King said. “There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters.”

So as Michigan considers shuttering low-performing schools — and as Gov. Rick Snyder sorts through dueling opinions about whether a new Detroit schools law requires his office to close every school in the city that’s posted at least three years of low test scores — King called on state officials to improve struggling schools, rather than just close them.

“Frankly, the track record for Michigan on school improvement to date is not great,” he said. “The key question is: Will the state put in place quality opportunities for students, whether that involves closure as a step or not?”

Chalkbeat spoke with King as he prepares to visit the Detroit area on Friday to highlight a program at Warren’s Proper Tooling manufacturing plant that gives high school apprentices on-the-job experience.

He’s also planning to visit a high school in Flint to discuss school-based health programs in the wake of the water crisis there.

But while he’s in town, King said he plans to ask questions about the state of schools in Detroit.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Detroit … is to get a better understanding from folks locally of what the challenges are,” he said. “Certainly it appears that inadequate resources have been invested in many of the schools.”

King said he couldn’t comment on the federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed last month against Snyder and state education officials alleging that the poor state of Detroit’s district and charter schools amounts to a violation of children’s constitutional rights.

But he said the Obama administration supports “the principle that all students in a community deserve an education that prepares them for college and careers,” and noted that he doesn’t think Detroit children are getting that.

“I certainly worry when I see the academic outcomes,” he said. “There are many students who are not getting the preparation for college and careers that they need. I don’t think anyone can look at the academic outcomes in Detroit and not be worried about students and the future of the city.”

King’s comments about charter schools are bound to be controversial among advocates for the privately managed schools. Michigan charter-school supporters routinely point to charter school test scores, which on average are slightly higher than district schools in Detroit.

They note that charter schools do close for poor performance, including five that were shut down last year, and that the new Detroit schools law, which could force the closure of both district and charter schools in the city, also includes tougher requirements for charter school authorizers.

But King said he doesn’t think Michigan has same high standards for charter schools as states like Massachusetts, which he says do a better job of ensuring that the schools “deliver results in exchange for greater autonomy.”

“There are individual [Michigan] charter schools that do seem to be performing well,” he said. “But on the whole, I don’t think the sector had been adequately monitored and adequate steps have not been taken to ensure that charter schools are consistently a better option.”

As he prepared to visit both Detroit and Flint, King drew parallels between Detroit’s schools crises and the problems in Flint, where toxic lead levels that were in the city’s water for more than a year could lead to serious medical, mental, and cognitive impairments in as many as 27,000 children and their parents.

“Ultimately the challenges in Detroit and Flint are both part of deeper problems, in which I think government has not served its citizens as well as it should and hasn’t prioritized equitable outcomes for all communities,” he said. “How the Flint situation came to be and the slow response I think reflects a lack of concern for folks in Flint and it certainly is connected to a long history of issues around race and class.”

Allowing Detroit’s schools to become “under resourced,” he said, is part of the same issue.

“The specifics are different,” he said. “But there is a connection in terms of how invested is the state government in ensuring opportunities and civil rights for all citizens.”

In Flint, he said, “inadequate attention has been paid to protecting the people of Flint in terms of the water quality and inadequate attention has been paid to the children of Detroit in terms of ensuring quality educational opportunities.”

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