Q&A: Why Is The Detroit Education Commission So Important?

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We’re up at the Mackinac Policy Conference this week talking to leaders, influencers, and newsmakers about what’s happening in Detroit. The annual conference is a who’s who of Detroit and statewide decision makers, so if you want to get a lot of questions asked and answered in a short time, this is where to go.

We sat down with Armen Hratchian, Vice President of Excellent Schools Detroit for a few questions. For background, he’s very much for the Detroit Education Commission plan.

The plan would create a level of limited oversight for Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and charter schools, with the members appointed by Detroit’s mayor. They would have the power to decide where to open and close schools, and if specific charters or charter authorizers can expand in the city; or if they’re underperforming and should be closed, and where those schools should be located. Under the plan, schools that fall below a grade of B can’t open new schools, and the DEC would sunset in five years.

Daily Detroit: What is Excellent Schools Detroit for the person who hasn’t ran into it before?

Armen Hratchian: It was clear for many years that Detroit’s education system was under performing, was financially stressed, and that Detroit’s education system was no longer just Detroit public schools. There were a hundred charter schools as well.

Back in 2009-10, philanthropic leaders, civic leaders, community leaders came together to form a new organization or a coalition called Excellent Schools Detroit with a shared mission of every Detroit child in an excellent school by 2020.

So they set up an organization at the center of that issue to think about all 120,000 kids at the time and 220 schools and regardless of governance, and that we can just have one solid mission here to make sure every kid’s in an excellent school. I work at that organization. We have a staff of roughly twelve, and we largely focus on setting conditions so that every school is excellent.

Daily Detroit: On a day-to-day basis, what does that look like?

Armen Hratchian: We’re best known for the score card work.

We collect data and information about every school in the city, including private schools, charters, DPS, EAA schools, any school serving Detroit kids including suburban schools. We package that data and publish it so that it helps inform parents that are looking to choose schools. We invest in the leadership and teach a pipeline program, so talent initiatives.

We facilitate the Detroit College Access Network and an early childhood initiative called E3, which is a training for early professionals. We do a lot of incubation work, so we help get things started. We recently launched an initiative called Enroll Detroit, and it’s there to simplify the enrollment process for Detroit families as they’re looking for schools.

Our daily work is in those buckets, but what we’re best known for in recent months has been this conversation going on in the legislature right now, starting with the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren almost two years ago. We’re trying to help the legislature get to some resolution on that.

Daily Detroit: Why is the Detroit Education Commission so important?

Armen Hratchian: Well, there are a few reasons. One is that for 20 years, we’ve had a city divided, charter schools versus DPS schools and that fight goes on, and while adults are fighting, families and kids are just trying to get to a great school. Detroit public schools have been dealt a really bad hand. Some of that they’ve dealt to themselves, but certainly under state management they’ve struggled. There’s this moment in time where it’s time to reset, give Detroit Public Schools back to the local board. Everybody’s supportive of that, and the state needs to resolve the debt that it accrued.

There’s also this big opportunity today to think more comprehensive and longer term about what our education system needs to look like going forward, and there are three things I would say that we know aren’t working right now.

Charters or DPS? They’re actually choosing none of those. They’re choosing to go elsewhere. You can’t have a city that doesn’t give families a viable option, a quality option, locally, and they should have school choices.

Daily Detroit: Those things are?

Armen Hratchian: One is overall, 20 years into a highly unregulated marketplace in schools, we have more schools than we need, and they’re in places where we don’t need them, and some are in places where there’s too many. We have some neighborhoods where there’s too many schools and other places where there’s not enough schools, and overall we have far too many schools, so everybody’s running inefficiently. We just have a simple neighborhood development crisis going on when you allow different entities to open and close schools without any sort of coordination.

The second thing we know is our performance isn’t strong. Nine percent of kids in DPS are proficient. Fourteen percent in charter schools are proficient. The charters are outperforming DPS, but it’s a fairly low bar. They’re both far behind the state. We have some significant bright spots in the city, some charter schools and DPS schools that I think we would lift up and say are great, but we have too many low quality schools, far too many low quality operators opening more schools, so we need somebody, something to be focused on quality.

A third thing is at some point over 20 years, we’ve built an education system that isn’t accountable to Detroiters at all, whether that be through state management of DPS or the EAA or that be charter schools that are ultimately responsible to their authorizers, none of which are in the city of Detroit.

There is this element of Detroiters, parents, families, citizens, business leaders, stakeholders, having some ownership over their schools again, and so this is an opportunity to do that as well.

Daily Detroit: What kind of chance do you have for that 2020 goal? What do you think it’s going to take to get somewhere close that earlier goal you stated in the beginning of the interview of every kid having a good education?

Armen Hratchian: I think a lot of the conditions are in place. We know policy is one major problem, so we’re not going to get to an excellent school for every kid by 2020. That was an audacious goal to start with, but the point is that should be our target.

At the end of the day, if we’re talking about education in the city and our goal isn’t the ensure every kid is in an excellent school, then what are we doing?

I would put two other goals in front of that right now.

The first is, as the mayor talks about a lot, we’ve had a significant population decline, so we hear today 27,000 kids every day leave this city to find a school. One in four leave the city looking for another school. 90,000 kids, this is incredible, 90,000 kids have moved out of the city over the past ten years, so literally over half of the kids today have opted out or are opting out of the current education landscape in Detroit.

Charters or DPS? They’re actually choosing none of those. They’re choosing to go elsewhere. You can’t have a city that doesn’t give families a viable option, a quality option, locally, and they should have school choices. That’s one I would look at and say, “Can we start to track Detroiters back in who are currently taking their kids to River Rouge or elsewhere?” Those 90,000 kids that moved out presumably because their families decided that there wasn’t a good school, we have a bunch of Millennials moving into Detroit now, they’re all going to have kids. Are we going to be able to retain those kids? Can we keep other kids in? That’s one, I would just say you look at population as dependent on the schools.

The second is overall quality. I do believe that we have to close a bunch of schools. There’s a bunch of low-performing schools that need to be closed. They need to be done in a systemic, highly respectful way to the community, and when we open new schools, they have to be high quality schools, or at least high potential schools. I could see a scenario where if we pass the Detroit Education Commission, we find ourselves five years from now with most of the schools that are currently failing have either been intervened in and it turned around or are closed and in its place are schools that have been restarted or new schools that are higher performing, which would be a huge, huge jump.

All of this is about, kind of final thought here, is 20 years and then it’s intensified the last two years. This instability does not retain educators. You don’t want to be a teacher in an environment where you don’t know if your school is going to be open year over year, you don’t know if you’ll have the resources, and you’re tired of the bickering going on around you. If we can get this work done, I think we’ll create a really stable landscape where educators will want to be. The educators that are currently there, school leaders and teachers, as well as folks that want to come back to the city.

Daily Detroit: Why do you think there’s so much resistance to the Detroit Education Commission?

Armen Hratchian: Well, just to put this into perspective, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren had Democrats and Republicans, charter school leaders, and DPS leaders, every age you can imagine and kind of faith and whatever else. They came out with the idea of a DEC and endorsed that. The mayor endorsed and he is a Democrat, a Republican governor, bipartisan senate, Democrats in the house – so when you think about resistance, we get down to one place, and it’s a small niche of highly influential individuals.

When you’ve been in this 20 year war between charters and DPS, both sides of that war are protecting their turf. There’s a lot of turf there to be protected.

My observation has been so long as people focus on quality and school choice and they put down that turf, they put down their swords, we get to this space in the middle. I think there’s a lot of resistance on both fringes that have been in this battle. I think that rightfully so, there’s concern that what if the mayor gets politically captured or what if it’s a different mayor in five years. At the end of the day, that’s why there’s a provision in the bill to sunset this in five years, and only if it’s working would it be extended.

We’ve put in the right safe guards, and the right appeal processes to protect quality operators or folks that might have ill intention. I think at this point, it’s just there’s people who have lived and fought for the status quo, and they’re fighting for it still.

Clearly, Detroit families don’t like what we’re doing right now, and if you’re a high quality operator, DPS or charter, the DEC would let you replicate freely.

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