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.