There's a lot of criticism being voiced about plans to "charterize" the fiscally and educationally bankrupt Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts. Government employee unions are making the most noise, but they've been joined recently by the Detroit Free Press, Michigan Public Radio’s Jack Lessenberry, and a state school board member.
Emergency mangers appointed to the districts plan to authorize independently managed charter schools to provide education to students, while simultaneously paying down the debt accumulated by their past school boards. State money provided on a per-student basis will fund the charter schools, while local property tax revenue goes to pay down the debts.
The benefits are clear: The debt created by past school boards will be paid by the communities who elected them, while holding harmless the education provided to current students.
Nevertheless, critics bemoan the loss of "local control" and the quick decision making, but offer no solutions themselves. The usual complaints also are being uttered about for-profit charter school management companies too, despite the fact that thousands of Michigan schools rely on for-profit businesses every day. (Curiously, there have been no similar complaints against for-profit textbook, food, software or bus manufacturing companies.)
The alternatives that do exist don’t really solve the problem. One would be to merge these districts with neighboring ones. But that is neither fair nor attractive to the districts that would be asked to assume the debt, nor would it prevent the dilution of "local control." It would also most likely eliminate the identity of these school districts, which the charterizing plans seek to maintain.
Maybe critics would prefer that state taxpayers just bail out these districts, rewarding failure by leaving their governing structures intact. Not only would that be unfair, it would do nothing to correct the persistent dysfunctions that created the current mess for these districts.
There’s no easy or perfect solution to failed school districts, and the plan to charterize these ones won’t be without its challenges. But considering the alternatives (or lack thereof), they appear to be the best next step for parents and students who must rely on these troubled school districts.