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Failing Michigan School District Throws Charter School Hail Mary

Detroit’s Highland Park public school district is in such bad shape that the city has decided to outsource the whole school system to a private company that runs for-profit charter schools:

The parents came to hear from the charter company, Leona Group LLC, which promises to improve the learning environment and boost student performance in a district where only 22% of third graders passed state reading exams last school year and just 10% passed math. The results were even worse for high-schoolers: About 10% were proficient in reading, and none in math. . . .

During the 2010-2011 school year, the district spent $16,508 per student. By comparison, Michigan districts on average spent $9,202 per pupil that year. In the process, Highland Park ran up an $11.3 million deficit over its $18.9 million school budget.

Public school employees can apply for jobs at the new charter schools, albeit with pay cuts:

Unions have been sidelined after the district’s entire professional staff was laid off, as allowed by the state emergency law, but teachers can apply for jobs with Leona. Leona has budgeted about $36,000 a year for Highland Park teachers on average, the company said—compared with almost $65,000 a year the teachers received in the 2010-11 school year.

In a typical school it takes over, Leona has hired back about 70% of the teachers, the company said. Leona also will lease the Highland Park district’s buildings.

Michigan is on the leading edge of the collapse of the blue model; the problems it is dealing with now could come to a school district near you soon.

There will have to be a lot of experimentation before we figure out what works and what doesn’t. Highland Park is taking a huge gamble by calling in a for profit charter company — in effect it is kissing a frog. Maybe the frog turns into a prince, maybe it just hops away and leaves Highland Park with a bad taste in its mouth. But when you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing, you have to try something new.

The Highland Park approach is not trouble free, and if more school districts around the country get into this kind of trouble, we can’t expect charter schools or anything else to act as a panacea. For one thing, the people deciding what to do next are usually the people on whose watch the old system fell apart.  Almost by definition, when a whole school district is failing, there are political problems as well as administrative and financial ones. Can a dysfunctional school board do a good job picking a charter operator? Where the problems are more political than anything else, we can expect big scandals to follow from school districts following Highland Park’s lead.

Ideally you don’t want one charter school operator to be responsible for a whole district. And ideally parents should be able to choose between schools under different management. So this isn’t the kind of change we want to see more of.

But Highland Park was in deep trouble, and it had to move fast. There wasn’t enough money to carry on with the old system and the results were so terrible that there weren’t any good reasons to stick with it.  Let’s just hope the town got lucky and kissed the right frog.

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  • John Barker

    If Mr.Obama and his Blue partisans think that they inherited a mess last term just wait til the next go round, not to say that I have heard any compelling or even coherent proposals from the other side.

  • Anthony

    Main take away: “Almost by definition, when a whole school distict is failing, there are political problems as well as administrative and financial ones.” Essentially then, WRM is implying there is cultural problem before there is an educational one or rather a political one – so in essence there are no magic bullets for Highland Park.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    As long as there is competition the results should be good. Contracts which expire every year, and other companies bidding for the next school year, will force the continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price which the Capitalist system is known for.

  • Richard Treitel

    Hmm, do we know if the district commissioners are long-time incumbents, or newly elected after the previous bunch departed suddenly in the direction of Brazil?

  • Roger

    Wow! This sounds like a disastrous solution. Why would the best school teachers take a near 50% pay cut when they can go elsewhere and make more?

    In private businesses, people change jobs for better pay and benefits. The teachers who take jobs are just going to be looking for other jobs to be able to pay their mortgages or put their kids through school.

    It’s horrible to see the American school system that took us to greatness dismantled.

  • Ken Marks

    I really think someone at Via Meadia should read the following book by Abigail and Stephen Thurnstrom: “No Excuses, Closing the Racial Gap in Learning.” They talk about the problems with our public education system. It would inform your view of what’s going in in Detroit.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I’ve watched public education deteriorate drastically during the course of my lifetime always with the same explanation – we aren’t spending enough. What I think has been happening is that the public education, like healthcare, has become a mony spinner for many who have interest in producing the result the institutions involved were set up to produce. There is less and less education and more and more ‘meta-education’ until it becomes cheaper to contract a pri

  • thibaud

    Mead: “Michigan is on the leading edge of the collapse of the blue model; the problems it is dealing with now could come to a school district near you soon”

    “Michigan”? Really?

    Perhaps Mr Mead could connect – with actual data and facts – his rather confusing dots here between Michigan, his so-called “BSModel”, and school performance.

    Does Mr Mead have information that the school systems of Ann Arbor and Southfield, Birmingham, Grosse Pointe, Kalamazoo, Traverse City and other cities across the state of Michigan are about to go belly up? If so, could he please share it with us?

    Alternatively, maybe he meant to analyze Detroit and the town it surrounds, Highland Park, instead of Michigan?

    If so, then it seems that the “BSModel” has, yet again, obscured the real issue here, which is of course not “big gum’mint” but the economic collapse of the Motor City’s Big 3 (or 2.5) and its uniquely poisoned race relations and atrocious governance.

    Not exactly a “model” of anything, is it? Maybe of late 20c American industrial decline, but then that model would seem to have as much to do with globalization and late 20c American industrial capitalism as with “socialism.”

    (Ah, but the BSModel is vast. It contains multitudes.)

    In any case, the liberal, “blue” towns in Detroit’s shadow still manage to have excellent and well-funded public schools. How can that be, given Michigan’s BSM epidemic?

    Anyway, why the exhortation to the good readers?

    If the plague of school bankruptcy and mass failure isn’t spreading to Southfield or Ann Arbor, then what makes Mead think that it’s about to engulf the hometowns of every one of his hundreds of readers?

  • Eurydice

    @Roger #5 – That’s a good question. My question would be – if almost none of the highschoolers can read or do math, what does “best teachers” mean in that school district? Also, the salary of $36,000 a year is an average, so how much will the charter school pay a “best” teacher?

  • Bruno Behrend


    Public school failure has spread everywhere. Even where not bankrupt, it employs too many low quality teachers, too many needless admin and support positions, and spends too much on non-education bureaucracy.

    The city in the story is merely a precursor to what should happen everywhere. Dismantlment of the worthless district system.

    Go to, read the top two posts, and download the exec summary on how to do this everywhere.

    The fact that you are a smart center lefty with some stats supporting some “good government,” doesn’t mean you should make the mistake of defending an indefensible education model.

  • thibaud

    “Public school failure has spread everywhere.”

    No, it hasn’t. Once you disaggregate for ethnicity, American students perform in line with their international peers, and in many cases even better. Korean-Americans perform on par with kids in Seoul, Mexican-Americans perform in line with kids in Mexico, white non-hispanic American kids perform on par with kids in Berlin or Helsinki, etc.

    Again, Mead’s clumsy drive-by would have us believe that Detroit schools’ problems are because they’re public schools – despite the stellar performance of so many school public school districts right next to Detroit. This kind of hackery isn’t helping us move forward.

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