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Jacques: Busting the charter school myth

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By Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
April 3, 2015

John Rakolta Jr. recently accompanied a Detroit mother and her two children on their journey to school.

The CEO of Walbridge and a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren wanted to see for himself what challenges families face each day. It floored him.

This family’s day starts at 6:15 a.m. They walk seven blocks to the nearest bus stop and wait 30 minutes. After a 10 minute bus ride, they walk five blocks and wait another 30 minutes for the second bus. The mother then walks her children to their respective schools.

“I get to Florida faster than they are able to get to school, and that’s the truth,” Rakolta said Monday during the coalition’s presentation of its recommendations.

This daily commute takes about two hours, each way. Just hearing about it sounds exhausting. But it’s what this mother, and many parents like her, are willing to do to get their children to schools they trust.

This particular mother sends her kids to charter schools. More than half Detroit’s children now attend charters. Most charter schools can’t provide transportation, so it’s up to parents to find a way there.

The fact they go to such great lengths is a powerful testament to the value of these schools. Parents who are disappointed with Detroit Public Schools are making choices based on a variety of factors, from better academics to school culture and safety.

All those reasons have merit.

That’s why this coalition’s cautions about charter schools seem misplaced. In its report, the 36 members of the coalition highlight what they found to be an unbridled charter environment, with a dozen charter authorizers running schools in Detroit. Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation and a co-chair of the coalition, blamed the density of school choice for the academic struggles of Detroit students. The coalition concludes the number of players contributes to poor coordination of schools and “no accountability.”

On the accountability front, that’s simply not true. Most charter authorizers are doing a good job regulating themselves and the markets they serve. As Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, points out, in the past five years, there has only been a net increase of seven schools in Detroit.

The coalition also points to the need for more quality and transparency of charter schools. But the state charter council has already sought that on its own. Burkhart and his members are spearheading an accreditation effort that would make Michigan the first in the country to put its charter authorizers through rigorous scrutiny.

One of the state’s largest authorizers, Grand Valley State University, just completed the process through the Georgia-based AdvancED. And other authorizers are lining up to do the same.

The national group Center for Education Reform gives Michigan’s charter school law an “A” grade. And after the coalition’s report, the center warned of adding “additional layers of bureaucracy with regards to the opening, closing, and renewal of charter schools.”

And Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes studied the performance of charters in 41 urban areas, including Detroit, and found students are gaining more than two months additional learning in a year than are their traditional public school peers.

Charter schools are also playing a significant role in encouraging middle-class families to stay in Detroit.

The Best Classroom Project, a grassroots group, has brought more than 300 Detroit parents together on a mission to find good kindergarten programs in the city. Many of the schools that have stood out to these families are charter schools.

While there is certainly room for improving charter schools, they have done much to offer better school choices in Detroit — and they shouldn’t be hampered in that work.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.