The panic is back.
Struggling Detroit schools that breathed a collective sigh of relief this month when Gov. Rick Snyder essentially offered them a stay of execution from tough new school closure requirements were sent reeling again today after the state’s top lawyer stepped in.
But what happens next in the whiplash-inducing school closure fight remains unclear and seems likely to end up in the courts. Here’s what we know — and what we still don’t.
Wait, what’s going on?
The central issue is a law passed last spring as part of the $617 million rescue package for Detroit Public Schools.
The law requires the state school reform office to shut down every school in Detroit — both district and charter — that landed in the bottom 5 percent on state school rankings for the last three years, except in cases where closure would cause “unreasonable hardship” to students.
Chalkbeat broke the story in August that the school reform office planned to use the results of state exams given in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to make closure decisions, even though the test had changed and schools had been told by another state agency that they wouldn’t face high-stakes consequences during the early years of the new M-STEP test.
It looked like dozens of Detroit schools could be doomed. The bottom 5 percent list hasn’t been published yet for 2016, but 27 schools in Detroit’s main school district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — were on the list in both 2014 and 2015.
Many seemed like they were in danger of closing until Snyder, early this month, said he’d accepted a legal finding that took the schools off the chopping block. Essentially, it meant that since DPSCD schools are now officially in a new district, they should get a fresh start. Detroit schools were told their past scores wouldn’t apply to school closure decision until 2019.
What happened today?
Attorney General Bill Schuette, the state’s top lawyer, issued a legal opinion that DPSCD schools can, in fact, be closed, even though their district is new. Schuette had been asked for that opinion by Republican lawmakers who said the intent of their legislation was to see long-struggling schools shut down. “The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school,” Schuette said in a statement. “Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can’t spell opportunity, they won’t have opportunity.”
Not only can schools be closed, Schuette said, but he asserts that the law demands it. “The SRO is required to close schools in accordance with state law, unless closure would result in an unreasonable hardship because there are insufficient other public school options reasonably available.”
So now what?
That’s hard to predict. It’s not clear if the attorney general has the power to order the governor or the School Reform Office to use his interpretation of the law. That is also in dispute, said Ari Adler, a spokesman for the governor.
“The governor has said all along that it is his intent to follow law,” Adler said. “As different opinions are presented, he will review them and address them accordingly.”
Snyder may decide to accept Schuette’s opinion and proceed with school closings or he could hold his ground, in which case GOP lawmakers, parents, or advocates could take him to court to force him to close schools. Defenders of public schools also say they’re prepared to take this battle to the courts — so the odds of any schools being closed without some kind of judicial review seem low.
What does the district say?
Not much yet. A spokeswoman from DPSCD issued a statement saying: “We have seen the news release issued by the State’s Attorney General in regards to his opinion about DPSCD future school closures and will need to closely and carefully review the opinion with counsel and determine our course of action.”
What about charter schools?
There are five Detroit charter schools that were on the bottom-five list in 2014 and 2015. Three of them — Hamilton Academy, Marvin L. Winans Academy of Performing Arts, and the Michigan Technical Academy — could all be in danger of closing if they land on the 2016 list as well. Two others, Murphy Performance Academy and Stewart Performance Academy, may not be affected since the law applies only to charter schools that have been open for four or more years. Those schools became charter schools in 2012, but the law is vague about when the clock starts on the four-year period.
What about the Education Achievement Authority?
There were 10 schools in the state-run recovery district on both the 2014 and 2015 bottom-five lists. But the law requiring mandatory school closures only applies to the “community district,” which is DPSCD, and to charter schools. State officials said last month that they planned to close any school in the state that was on the bottom-five list for three years, which could include EAA schools, but the EAA has a murky legal status since its schools are expected to revert back to DPSCD next summer. When asked about the EAA schools’ likelihood of facing closure, an EAA spokeswoman pointed out that state law requires the school reform office to take certain steps such as ordering a redesign plan before closing a school. None of the steps have been taken with any EAA schools, she said. (Those steps aren’t required under the new law that applies to DPSCD and to charters.)
Which Detroit public schools are in danger of being closed?
There were 27 schools on the bottom-five list in 2014 and 2015. A third strike on the 2016 list, which is expected around November 1, could spell trouble for these schools. They are:
Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School
Bow Elementary-Middle School
Brewer Elementary-Middle School
Clark Preparatory Academy
Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School @ Northwestern
Detroit Institute of Technology at Cody
Durfee Elementary-Middle School
Fisher Magnet Lower Academy
Fisher Magnet Upper Academy
Gardner Elementary School
Gompers Elementary-Middle School
Greenfield Union Elementary-Middle School
King High School
King Academic and Performing Arts Academy
Marquette Elementary-Middle School
Thurgood Marshall Elementary Schools
Mason Elementary School
Osborn Academy of Mathematics
Osborn College Preparatory Academy
Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy
Palmer Park Preparatory Academy
Pulaski Elementary-MIddle School
Thirkell Elementary School
Western International High School
Coleman A. Young Elementary