Undermining Education in Detroit Schools

by Guillermo Magón

With the national program to privatize any and all public entities, we can expect that the privatization of Detroit Public Schools is not going to slow down any time soon. The fate of Detroit education is in the hands of Educational Management Organizations (EMOs), companies that run the majority of charter schools across the United States.

Parroting out the usual right-wing talking point (public bad! private good!) EMO owners bank on communities believing that the private market approach will produce a better education for students, especially when funded by public dollars that could have gone to public schools. Though there are some charter schools that are self-managed, and non-profit ones, the biggest group in the city are run by for-profit entities.

So, the issue at hand is that these EMOs are moving in, and that we, as a city, are going to have to deal with them. Of great concern, then, is who these companies are, and what to expect as they begin to take over our schools.

As luck would have it, in the summer of 2011, Global Educational Excellence (GEE), one of the charter school operators in Michigan, held a round of informational sessions for the public. In theory, these sessions could have opened discourse between GEE and the community, allowing for an active participation from community members. Instead, these presentations were less about engagement, and more a play by play of common arguments one could find on Wikipedia (1).

At an Edmonson Academy presentation, representatives from GEE were quick to stress that chartering did not mean that Edmonson was no longer a public school. The logic being that because GEE was going to be paid with public dollars, private ownership and the lack of a publicly selected educational board were of no consequence. That educational policy would be determined by an organization with a profit-motive was raised as positive note. The thinking here being that with a profit-motive and competition, EMOs will strive to create the best product – in this case, a child’s future. Should the EMO fail to do so, customers – who we once called parents, students, and community members—will just leave.

This, of course, ignores a 2009 Stanford University study (2) which has shown that charter schools generally match their public school counterparts in educational achievement. Or the fact that a market “take it or leave it” approach might be fine for picking out a pair of shoes, but has grand consequences when applied to crafting the educational foundations for a human being.

Also ignored was GEE’s educational track record, and how they were chosen to operate their schools in Detroit. Take the case of White Elementary, another Detroit Public school recently turned over to GEE. In the Michigan Statewide Top to Bottom School Ranking list, of the twelve schools managed by GEE, two were ranked lower in educational achievement than White (3). Essentially, the best idea for turning around one of the city’s low performing schools was to hand it over to a private company that actually ran schools worse than the city had. Clearly, there was no need to create a decent “product,” GEE found a way to turn a profit anyway.

What this means for students is the lack of attention to education from EMO operators has to be made up for by the teachers. While charter school teachers are as dedicated to the field as any other educator, they have to contend with owners and administrators that do not view students as students, but as income bearing units. Lacking unions, teachers in charter schools face additional challenges. In cases where the interests of the students conflict with the “profit-at-any-means” approach of the EMO, teachers have no means to defend themselves being at-will employees. Leaving no security under which they can have input in policy, charter teachers often have to choose to comply with administrative lines, or find new employment.

The solution to these problems, as always, lies with us as a community. At the moment, with a state legislature constantly two steps away from twirling their collective mustaches and cackling maniacally, the long term goal for everyone should be to organize and eventually knock these anti-education politicians out of office. Communities can help the teachers at charters by encouraging and supporting unionization efforts – and holding EMOs accountable with pickets, boycotts, and the like for trying to stop those efforts. Individuals with teaching backgrounds could start their own charter schools – without EMOs – to focus on education over profit. In all cases, the goal should be to help educate students of Detroit. Just keeping that in mind will put anyone miles ahead of the EMOs.

(1) ”Charter School.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_school#Critiques_of_charter_schools
(2) “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States.”
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). 2009. http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf
(3) “\2011 Michigan Public School Top to Bottom Ranking.”
Michigan Department of Education. 2011. http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140-37818_56562—,00.html
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