Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

February 20, 2014

Phil Power: Time to start looking heresy in the eyes

‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Among other things, this famous Zen riddle suggests that some problems are extremely complex — and may require more than one approach to a solution.

That’s an important notion when it comes to how to get seriously better outcomes in student learning, especially for urban schools that serve poor, vulnerable and minority children — exactly the ones who most desperately need good schooling.

As a society, we’ve spent countless millions of dollars and decades in trying to resolve this problem without much to show for it.

Take Detroit, where the public schools have been a long-running catastrophe for more years than I can count and yet where, according to one controversial study, nearly half of the adult population may remain functionally illiterate.

In recent years, Detroit Public Schools enrollment has plunged astonishingly — from 167,085 in 2000 to 49,172 in 2013.

That’s no surprise when you consider that Detroit Public Schools are too often overcrowded, under-managed, and violent. What caring parent would want to condemn her or his child to that kind of environment?

And so there has been a corresponding increase in charter schools, often touted as the obvious way to bring good schooling to kids who need it by breaking the inept monopoly of public education. Detroit, for example, now has more than 250 charters which today serve more kids than the public schools — some 51,000 children.

What this has meant, however, is thousands more school desks in Detroit than children to fill them. And this excess supply has created ferocious competition between public schools, charters, and charters operated by Detroit Public Schools themselves.

All are struggling to enroll kids to qualify for the state per-pupil foundation grant, currently a little over $7,000 a year.

On a visit last fall to University Preparatory Schools, which are among Detroit’s best and most hopeful public charters, I learned even they are having trouble maintaining enrollment against all the competition, including suburban private schools.

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