STEPHEN HENDERSON: GOP pushes Ideological affirmative action for charter schools

I thought conservatives were against programs that substitute non-merit standards for quality control or excellence.


Isn’t that why Michigan passed a constitutional amendment to halt racial equity considerations in college admissions and other state functions? Didn’t they preach, ad nauseum, about the dangers of programs like affirmative action and the value of earning what you get?

So how can we now not laugh, loudly, as some in the Republican leadership in Lansing argue for an all-charter school system in Detroit? The largest charter experiment in the nation, which has unfolded here over the past 22 years, has at best produced a mixed bag of results. Some good schools have been created. More awful ones have. And the lack of standard-setting that other states have used to ensure high performance from charters means schools open and close willy-nilly, without regard to their academic track records. Most fail because of finances or lousy management. But that’s no solace, because even these so-called market pressures — which conservatives assured us would lead to better educational outcomes — have only led to massive instability. Some 160 schools in the city have opened or closed in the past seven years.

And the effect on other public schools? Yeah, advocates argued two decades ago that charters would introduce healthy competition for public schools, forcing them to come up with better programs and outcomes.

Nothing like that ever happened.

The charter promise of better alternatives has attracted parents eager for improvement, leaving traditional public schools with fewer kids and less money. They didn’t innovate to compete. In fact, largely under state control, they have simply lost the ability to achieve fiscal balance without drastic cuts, or mountains of debt.

No, charters haven’t earned the right to rule, without competition, here in the city. As a group, they’ve barely justified their existence.

So let’s just call this discussion what it is: an argument for ideological affirmative action. It’s a push for advancement of the charter agenda based on belief that free-market principles are best for education, regardless of the stunning lack of merit in the outcomes of the charter experiment.

The Republican side of the aisle in Lansing is like an enraptured congregation that catches the holy ghost when it comes to charter schools — convinced of the salvation they’ll provide and unwilling to even consider facts or evidence that contradicts their passionate narrative.

Praise the market and open a charter. Never mind what happens after that.

Rep. Tim Kelly, the Republican who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on education aid, had the nerve last week to argue that the facts suggest the public schools in Detroit can’t ever be fixed and that the system should be shut down.

But why wouldn’t that same conclusion be made about charter schools?

Gary Naeyaert, the chief lobbyist for charter schools in the state, bragged to me this week, on WDET’s Detroit Today, that 85% of kids in charter schools don’t meet state standards on the M-STEP test, because that’s a better mark than the 91% in Detroit public schools.

“That means charters are doing 50% better,” he said. (Hear the full interview with Naeyaert.)

The messianic delusion made my head spin. The arrogance of his argument, combined with its sheer inattention to the tragic outcomes for city kids, isn’t just dismissive; it’s bigoted, in the sense that it surely would not be made about kids in wealthier, or whiter communities.

I can’t say what’s in Naeyaert’s head, or heart. But his argument invokes all of the historical inequalities that tell the poor, and African Americans, to accept less and be content with it.

And then there’s the money dynamic.

Charters have become a billion-dollar industry here in Michigan.

And Naeyaert is not just a volunteer believer. He’s captaining a cash-soaked lobby that has contributed to most current Republican members of the Legislature. And the ones that Naeyaert’s Great Lakes Education Project has not given to directly have gotten cash from the DeVos family, which has funded GLEP to the tune of $1.6 million over the past decade.

Combined, the DeVos family and GLEP have contributed $2.2 million to individual legislators and the House and Senate Republican campaign committees over the last 10 years.

Of course, all politicians take money. And they all say the cash doesn’t dictate their votes.

But there’s no question that the cumulative effect of the charter lobby’s giving in Lansing helps skew the conversation about reform here in Detroit.

House Republicans, for instance, are also standing in the way of the Detroit Education Commission, which would require low- and middling-performing charter authorizers to get approval before opening new schools. It’s a modicum of regulation for a sector that has operated pretty much without oversight. It would, quite simply, slow the spread of mediocre or failing schools.

But if your motivation is ideology, and there’s financial support for your political existence based on that belief, what difference do the facts make?

The tragic consequence of this ideological crusade is, of course, the continued misery of kids and families in Detroit who struggle to find decent educational options.

But it’s also a trashing of the merit culture Republicans say they cherish so strongly.

If we really want to fix schools in Detroit, we’ll need them to stay true to who they say they are, not who they’re paid to be.