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In Washtenaw County, there are 6 miles and 91 percentage points between Community High School and Ypsilanti High School. What gives?

School districts aren’t run by politicians – they’re run by independent special-purpose governments, known as school boards, which answer to (but are fiscally and administratively distinct from) local governments. Within each larger school district, there are smaller districts, which determine which specific school you will go to, based on your location. This image is a representation of all the school districts in Washtenaw County, where I live. For perspective, I live in the center of the Ann Arbor Public School District, and I can get to Ypsilanti in about 10 minutes.

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The Michigan Department of Education releases an annual study which ranks all schools and districts in Michigan, called the Top to Bottom List. Aside from the uninspired title, this list ranks schools across the state not just the county, and even just assessing high school – grades 9-12 – the disparity is shocking. On page 1 of 107 of the report, we see Community High School in Ann Arbor ranks in the 99th percentile in the state. Untitled

On page 99 of 107, we see Ypsilanti High School, in Ypsilanti, ranks in the 8th percentile in the state. These schools are 6 miles apart.Ypsilanti High School - Top to Bottom Ranking

Looking through the entire report, we can see similar disparities in all the counties across Michigan. The disparities themselves don’t come as a surprise – we all know that there are poor schools and then there are rich schools. The type of school depends on the income of the neighborhood in which that school is located. It comes down to property taxes and the parents financial and work-related flexibility to be involved in fund-raising. What I think is remarkable about this particular disparity, is that there are only 6 miles between the two schools. Six miles and 91 percentage points. What happens in that six miles stretch?

Let’s compare and contrast Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor:

  •  Ann Arbor is buzzing hub of cultural activity and the quintessential “college town” – dozens of boutiques and micro-brewerys, constant musical events, arts-festivals, diversity celebrations, political speakers, and, of course, the one and only University of Michigan. Everyone in the area generally loves Ann Arbor – it’s a liberal, open-minded place with an intense sense of community and locality and homegrown pride in the great state of Michigan.
  • Ypsilanti is more of a working-class cultural hub – it has its own, less popular festivals and events, unique (but much more reasonably priced) boutiques, celebrations of diverse cultures, and even its very own University – Eastern Michigan University. But viewed from the rest of Michigan, Ypsilanti has a bad reputation. At 8.68%, it’s violent crime rate is approximately double the Michigan average of 4.45%, and property values are almost half what they are in Ann Arbor. Ypsilanti has some very nice neighborhoods, but the general perception from Michigan residents living outside of Ypsi (and even, to a degree, living in Ypsi) is that living in Ypsilanti is a step down from living in Ann Arbor. And that mentality shows in the family income levels and the overall success of students in the Ypsilanti school district.

So how can we rectify this disparity – the 91 percentage points? Out of habit, we blame those who administer education – the school administrators and teachers. If we blame these groups, and their presiding school boards (those independent, specialized governments I mentioned earlier), then the obvious solution is to do away with poisonous public school management systems and implement the untainted Charter schools. Michigan has made huge strides in Charter education, especially in Detroit. The state of Michigan believed that Detroit desperately needed school-choice options student achievement was chronically deplorable and the achievement gap for Detroit families was not just a Policy-making term, but an every-day reality for the majority of students attending public school in detroit.

In 2011, 7 percent of Detroit 8th graders achieved grade-level proficiency in reading, and only 4 percent achieved grade-level proficiency in math

About half of all Detroit students eventually enrolled in Charter Schools, and unfortunately, nothing changed.

Charter schools are funded on a per-student basis, not to exceed the amount of per-student government funding provided to public schools. So coming from the government, the contribution is the same – this is supposed to be the control factor which then allows us to judge school and teacher effectiveness by results, rather than by funding margins. But Charter schools are generally perceived as better-funded – why is that?

As private companies, Charter schools can supplement the per-student allowance provided by the government with private profits. Due to the theoretically increased funding and the fact that Charter schools are not bound by the same government and union regulations as public schools, the idea is that the alternative operates more efficiently and effectively. But there are pretty substantial overhead costs for schools, even if the charter school company doesn’t build a brand new facility. Students need desks, white-boards, text books, supplies, access to computers, special education services, etc – all in addition to qualified teachers, staff, and stimulating curriculum. In Detroit, the theoretically increased funding doesn’t go very far towards making a difference in the academic outcomes. This is not true for all charter schools or all charter-heavy districts – but it is a fact for Detroit.

Now, let’s be clear – the failure of Charter schools in Detroit doesn’t mean that, prior to Charter-izing Detroit, the public schools were well-run and effective, and somehow the government completely mis-diagnosed the problem. Clearly there were, and are, many management and administrative issues facing the school boards. But the failure of charter schools hints at three distinct aspects of the educational debate that Policy-Implementers have neglected so far: First, that the problem is multi-faceted and must be addressed with multi-faceted solutions. Especially in cities which have storied histories regarding labor, unions, entrepreneurship, inventive-ness, and racial discrimination, like Detroit, it is absolutely absurd to claim that changing the names and the faces involved in school district will somehow correct the problems within that school district. That was a worthwhile tactic a decade ago, not anymore.  Secondly, we cannot dissociate students from their success. We are not going to correct the achievement gap by plucking under-achieving students out of failing schools and transplanting them in new schools. They will not, and have not, just magically become academic all-stars. We have to address the long-standing issues, habits, and deficiencies that the sub-par school system had already bred into them and we must encourage them to become agents in their own academic success, rather than addressing the problem as if school were a phenomenon that just “happens” to kids, rather than an activity in which they partake. And thirdly, we must recognize and admit that “divide-and-conquer” is not an effective strategy. In principle, downsizing is an effective way to manage tight budgets. Since we can’t discharge thousands of students from the school system the way a business might lay-off employees, splitting school districts into multiple, smaller charter districts is the educational variation of down-sizing. But this method has put school districts deeply into debt, up-rooted kids from their communities, and given them teachers who are often ignorant of and unprepared to cope with the academic issues and difficult circumstances with which most of their students grapple.

To improve education, we have to start looking at the actual causes of the problems, rather than focusing on the simplest solution (deposing school boards).

So what do I think we should do?

I think we should try the other extreme – let’s pool resources. I think it’s worth a try to combine school districts into larger groups, using shared facilities and personnel resources. Share bus-systems, share math teachers, open communal facilities – the idea in my head is based largely on a Pomona College in California type of set-up – several different schools, all under the same umbrella which share resources and facilities and funding, but each of which has its own focus and flavor. They are independent and unique but they are part of a community and so they depend on and assist each other. We could, in this regard, make school districts less about neighborhoods and more about communities – we could put disparate neighborhoods in touch with each other, which might help to alleviate the harsh perceptions some Ann Arbor residents have towards Ypsilanti, and visa versa. It could also cut down on overhead expenses like sports facilities and bus systems. But most of all, it would allow for vocational and academic specializations within a single community. We could offer students the ability to attend the technical high school while still offering them the opportunity to engage in academia if they were interested, and visa versa. We have so divided “skills” training from “academic” training and with it we have emboldened the achievement gap. Vocational training and academic training are just variations on a theme, and the theme is economic stability and social mobility.

Rather than further marginalize students who are already under-achieveing by dividing them up and throwing them into charter schools, which are also under-achieving, why don’t we try to create an inclusive community school district in which students and families are all tangibly related to each other’s success?

Now,  I usually refrain from making my own suggestions for solutions because I’m sure there are a MILLION reasons, which I have not considered or am not aware of, that make this a bad idea, impractical, unethical, etc. I offer my silly ideas up on a platter this time because I want to demonstrate the fact that we are absolutely failing to even consider options like the one I suggested. We are determined to do the same ineffective thing over and over and expect different results – we are pouring money into a broken school system (nationally $11,000 per student annually), dividing schools into smaller and smaller pieces, and not even touching on the pressing issues in student achievement. So while I know my idea isn’t great and it’s rife with issues – I am at least suggesting something other than “more funding!”, “more teachers!”, “more choices!”, “gut the unions!”, or my favorite conservative thought on the subject: “screw them!”.

So I’d love to hear everyone’s wild and crazy ideas for an outside-of-the-box educational system for students under 18 years old, and I’d love you all to tell me exactly what’s wrong with my model.

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