School Choice Meltdown in Motown

I talked to parents in Detroit who are living through that city’s experiment in unregulated school choice…

Since Betsy DeVos was nominated to serve as the top edu-official in the land, her role in shaping Detroit as an education laboratory in which an out-of-control lab fire now burns, has been subject to plenty of scrutiny. But we haven’t heard enough from parents who are living through the city’s experiment in unregulated school choice. In this episode of Have You Heard, the final installment of my ten-part series with collaborator Aaron French, I headed to Detroit to talk to parents about Motown’s school choice meltdown. They describe what it’s like when schools shut down without notice, leaving them to fend for themselves in the “education marketplace,” while mass school closures have left whole neighborhoods without schools. It’s a hard story to hear, and yet these parents, and the advocacy group they’re part of, 482Forward, will leave you feeling hopeful—something we could all use a little more of these days!

Jennifer Berkshire: One thing you need to know about Detroit — it’s enormous, covering some 140 square miles. It’s also seen more school closures than any other city. Nearly 200 schools closed here between 2000 and 2015. For parents and neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of these closings, that can mean lengthy trips just to get their kids to school.


Dawn Wilson-Clark: Two years ago I was driving 200 miles a week to four different schools trying to ensure that my children had a really good education. Now I’m down to 160, but I’m paying a tuition.


Berkshire: That’s Dawn Wilson-Clark. She’s got a big family, seven kids, and all that time she spends driving them around reflects the reality of Detroit’s education marketplace. Schools here aren’t evenly spread across the city. In the Brightmoor neighborhood where Clark has lived for the past 18 years, there are hardly any schools left.


Wilson-Clark: When I moved there, we had nine Detroit public schools. Now it’s only one.


Berkshire: You’ve probably heard of a food desert. Well, whole sections of Detroit are now school deserts. Even as new schools have opened up here, they’re not necessarily located in parts of the city that have the most kids. Brightmoor has 3,500 students but just one school that goes all the way up to 12th grade, a charter that’s been struggling for years. Compare that to Downtown Detroit, which is booming economically but has far fewer young residents.


Wilson-Clark: Downtown Detroit has 11 high schools with under 2,000 students.


Berkshire: Not only are schools unevenly distributed across this vast city, Detroit also has too many schools. Until recently, some dozen different entities were allowed to open schools here. One consequence of all this choice — there’s a fierce competition among schools to get the students. A few years back, Dawn’s daughter, Dana, who’s a star student, got recruited by a new charter school called University YES that promised to put her on a fast-track to college.


Wilson-Clark: They were going to have two hours of math, two hours of English, a college seminar class, a service learning where the children would learn outside of school and do a lot of team building.


Berkshire: It was just the sort of school that Dawn had been looking for. Best of all, because it was a publicly-funded charter school, she didn’t have to pay tuition anymore. In fact, things went so well that Dana quickly became a poster student for University YES, which used her image and story to recruit new students to the school.


Wilson-Clark: Any time people needed to speak to a good student, my daughter was the face. We were on the website. She was on all their marketing material.


Berkshire: Within a few years, though, the school had cut back on its college prep offerings, and Dawn wanted to know why. She called the CEO, started showing up at board meetings. But it was when teachers at the school were suspended for trying to organize a union and Dawn intervened on their behalf that the shit really hit the fan.


Wilson-Clark: We had teachers, parents, and students, about 20 of us, and they just poured their heart out about the challenges that they were facing at the school and why they wanted to start a union. They did not feel valued and they did not think that they were doing the best for the children. They saw a lot of money being mismanaged.


Berkshire: The more Dawn spoke up, the worse things got for her daughter. When administrators wouldn’t let Dana take a final exam because of a uniform violation, Dawn pulled her from the school. Dana will graduate from her current school this year, but her friends who stayed at University YES weren’t so lucky. Last August, just days before the start of the school year, the charter announced that it was closing its high school.


Wilson-Clark: These children had to scramble and these parents had to scramble to try to find somewhere to educate their children for their last year.


Berkshire: Now, there are some unusual elements to Dawn’s story. For example, I didn’t mention that she makes her living performing as Kuddles the Hip-Hop Clown. But as a Detroit parent, her experiences navigating a complex, often chaotic school landscape are actually pretty typical. A 2014 report commissioned by the group Excellent Schools Detroit found that parents here are essentially on their own when it comes to figuring out what to do when, say, their child’s school suddenly closes.


Michelle Phillips: My name’s Michelle Phillips. I live in the East Side of Detroit. I have eight children.


Berkshire: We’re going to hear about one of Michelle’s kids, the third oldest. His story starts when the charter school he’d been attending suddenly announced that it wouldn’t be reopening for the next school year.


Phillips: When they closed down, they let my son know on social media that the school was closing down before they informed the parents. They didn’t inform us until like two weeks before the school year started.


Berkshire: Michelle needed to find a new school for her son, and fast, but she wasn’t even sure where to begin. Like a lot of Detroiters, Michelle doesn’t have a car, so driving around the city in search of possible schools wasn’t an option either. So she did what you would probably do in her shoes — she went online.


Phillips: I looked on the internet and did my research to see what schools that was close in my area that would be good for my son, at least I thought would be good for my son.


Berkshire: And she found one, Detroit Edison Public School Academy, one of the best charter schools in the city. It sounded like a perfect fit for her son, a self-proclaimed nerd who loves math, science, and engineering. All Michelle had to do was produce some documents.


Phillips: I turned in everything that they asked me for except his test scores. I tried to get his test scores from the other school but I couldn’t, and just because I didn’t have them test scores they didn’t allow him to enter in that school. Later on I found out that it was illegal what they’d done. I thought they was a good school, but come to find out they was only trying to pick and choose the students that were testing good.


Berkshire: Michelle ended up putting her son in a high school in Hamtramck, a separate city within the city of Detroit where she was living at the time. Her son is at a charter school now and will graduate this year. She says that the school is just okay. Her son is having to repeat a lot of what he learned at Hamtramck High. But at least there’s an end in sight.


Phillips: This is his last year. He will be graduating this year.


Berkshire: I interviewed Michelle back in January. Since then, the state has released its list of schools to be closed for low performance. 25 Detroit schools are on that list, including the neighborhood school that three of her kids attend. Without a car and with public transportation here both expensive and unreliable, Michelle doesn’t have a lot of options.


Wytrice Harris: Really, if you take our situation and put it in any other school district, you will get the same instability. It’s not that we’re unstable, it’s that all of our school systems are unstable.


Berkshire: That’s Detroit pastor and education activist Wytrice Harris. She says that, as you listen to the stories of parents like Dawn and Michelle, she hopes that you’ll resist the temptation to think of this as a tale of education chaos in some other city.


Harris: It’s not. It’s not just a Detroit story. I think we’ve been categorized as the poor people of color and so that’s happening to them. People can isolate themselves and say, “Oh, that’s them, that’s not us,” but really this problem is bigger than us.


Bershire: Detroit may face a particularly complex set of challenges, but the demise of neighborhood schools is a problem that’s playing out across the country, and with school choice now a priority of President Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos, that trend will likely accelerate. Harris is concerned about what happens to neighborhoods like hers in East Detroit when there are no longer schools to hold the community together.


Harris: So often, we’re called “the hood,” and it’s because the neighbors aren’t there any more. We need to make sure that we put the neighbor back in the hood. That means you know the children, the children know each other and they are playing with each other, going to school with each other, talking to each other. We’ve become so isolated now that everyone’s doing their own thing, and I’m afraid nothing’s working.


Berkshire: Harris works for a group called 482Forward that is organizing parents to demand solutions to Detroit’s school woes. One of the group’s central tenets is that student success is the collective responsibility of everyone in the city. Until a few years ago, Harris confesses that she didn’t exactly share that view. She was focused on her own kids, twins, who attended a private school.


Harris: They did pre-K through eighth grade at private school, and, to be honest, while they were I felt like my dollars were on the table so I could definitely make sure they got a good education. If I wasn’t pleased with anything, I would just go talk to whoever the parties that were in charge and make sure that my daughters’ counted for something.


Berkshire: But then Harris came to a major realization. While she was devoting most of her life to trying to lift up the city where she grew up, she was completely disengaged from its schools, and that had to change.


Harris: I’m very spiritual, so I also had a spiritual epiphany about this and decided that it was never going to change if people felt like I felt; if everyone just disengaged and worried about their own children, that no one was going to be able to see the whole city move forward. I decided to get involved. I needed to put some skin in the game. If I was going to complain about how the city was and how the city’s education was, then I had to also be there to help move forward in it.


Berkshire: These days, Harris and 482Forward are fighting the proposed school closures in Detroit and pushing for a system that’s more coordinated, less chaotic, and gives parents here more of a say in the future of the city’s schools. Despite all the challenges, Harris says she’s actually feeling quite hopeful about the future.


Harris: I feel like there’s no other choice but to be hopeful, because this is a city that I believe in. We’re often called “the tale of two cities” because we have something very different going on Downtown than we have going on in our communities, but I’m just a fighter and I believe that there should be fairness across the board, and I’m willing to fight to the end for it.


Berkshire: That message resonated with Michelle Phillips. She found her way to 482Forward when her daughter’s school was threatening to make her repeat a grade without a transcript from a previous school that had closed its doors. 482Forward helped, and before long Phillips did something she’d never done before — she joined a march to demand fair treatment for the kids in Michigan’s largest city.


Phillips.: We need our kids to have the same type of education. They need books. They need qualified teachers. Our children deserves the best as well.