So city leaders across the political spectrum agreed on a fix, with legislation to provide oversight and set standards on how to open schools and close bad ones.
But the bill died without even getting a final vote. And the person most influential in killing it is now President-elect Donald J. Trump’s nominee to oversee the nation’s public schools, Betsy DeVos.
he bill’s proposals are common in many states and accepted by many supporters of school choice, like a provision to stop failing charter operators from creating new schools. But Ms. DeVos argued that this kind of oversight would create too much bureaucracy and limit choice. A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation. Charter schools should be allowed to operate as they wish; parents would judge with their feet.
Detroit Public Schools, she argued, should simply be shut down and the system turned over to charters, or the tax dollars given to parents in the form of vouchers to attend private schools.
“She is committed to an ideological stance that is solely about the free market, at the expense of practicality and the basic needs of students in the most destabilized environment in the country,” said Tonya Allen, the president of the Skillman Foundation, a nonprofit that works with Detroit children, and a co-chairwoman of the coalition that produced the report that became the basis for the legislation last spring.
“If she was showing herself present in places and learning from the practitioners, that’s a fine combination,” Ms. Allen said. “But Betsy never showed up in Detroit. She was very eager to impose experimentation on students that she has not spent time with and children that she does not have consequence for.”
Ms. DeVos has a long career as an education philanthropist and lobbyist, but not as an educator. She and her husband, Dick, an heir to the Amway fortune, are considered the most powerful Republicans in Michigan. In the debate over Detroit schools, Republican lawmakers say, Ms. DeVos withheld her financial support until they agreed to kill the bill.
And they were rewarded well when they did: Ms. DeVos’s family began a flood of donations to Republicans that totaled $1.45 million in seven weeks.
Ms. DeVos declined to be interviewed. But her allies say her views have been misinterpreted.
“She’s never said choice and choice alone is the panacea for public education,” said Gary Naeyaert, the lobbyist who leads the Great Lakes Education Project, which Ms. DeVos founded to advance charter schools in Michigan in 2001 after her family had spent nearly $5.8 million on a losing initiative to establish statewide school vouchers. “It’s choice, quality and accountability.”
Hers was a different version of choice, quality and accountability, however, than that envisioned by those who drafted and supported the legislation: a broad coalition of charter school and teachers’ union leaders, the Detroit chamber of commerce and some of the city’s most prominent Republican philanthropists and politicians, its Democratic mayor and the state’s Republican governor.
“The misinformation campaign was horrendous,” said Thomas Stallworth III, a former state legislator who lobbied on behalf of the coalition. And the sway of her contributions was too much to overcome. “There’s no way we could compete with that. We don’t have those kinds of resources.”
Ms. DeVos and her husband had lobbied hard for the state law that established charter schools in 1994. It allowed an unusually large number of organizations to start charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. But it created little oversight.
Even charter school supporters now criticize Detroit as one of the most unregulated markets in the country. About 80 percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, far higher than anywhere else.
In 2011, the DeVoses and the Great Lakes project lobbied successfully to lift a cap on the number of charter schools, fighting off a provision that would have kept failing schools from expanding.
In Detroit, which now has a greater proportion of charters than any city but New Orleans, one result was a glut of schools as more charters opened but the city’s population continued to decline. Yet while there are too many seats in schools downtown, there are not enough in the poorest, most remote neighborhoods, where most students live.
Traditional and charter schools alike compete with televisions, laptops and bicycles for students — and the taxpayer dollars that follow them. More than 150 schools have opened or closed in the last seven years, and it is not unusual to find students who change schools every year, and teachers who do so more often than that.
With more than a dozen organizations issuing charters, it is hard for parents to get the information they need to inform their choices. And, in a city of 140 square miles, the highest-performing schools usually remain out of reach to the poorest students, because most schools do not offer transportation, and the city bus service is unreliable.
Most charters have failed to improve on the dismal performance of the traditional public schools. High-performing national charter networks have stayed away because of the instability of the market. The Walton Family Foundation, which has committed $1 billion over the next five years to expanding charters and choice, similarly withdrew its money from Detroit earlier this year.
The legislation proposed earlier this year by Goeff Hansen, a Republican state senator, would have paid off the debt of the city’s traditional public schools, which were on the brink of bankruptcy, and returned control of those schools from the state to a locally elected school board.
But the provision that proved most controversial to the DeVoses would have established a Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor. With three members from charter schools, three from the traditional public schools and one an expert in educational accountability, the commission was to come up with an A-to-F grading system for all schools, and evaluate which neighborhoods in the city most needed schools.
School operators that earned below an A or B could not expand without the commission’s signing off on their location. Schools that earned an F three years in a row could be closed.
Ms. DeVos and her husband wrote legislators urging them to reject any legislation that included the commission. Why, they argued, should residents have choice in where they shop for food and travel, but not in schools? She wrote a Detroit News op-ed arguing to “retire” Detroit Public Schools and “liberate all students” to use tax dollars to attend public or charter schools of their choice.
Leaders of 20 charter schools in Detroit, including some of the highest-performing, made a last-ditch effort to urge the Legislature to adopt the commission. “We have to be looking at every possible way to expand the choices and the opportunities in the neighborhoods for families,” Clark Durant, a onetime Republican candidate for the United States Senate and the co-founder of a network of schools, said at a news conference alongside Mayor Mike Duggan. “And I believe this is the beginning of that effort.”
The legislation passed the State Senate. But in the House of Representatives, support fell away, as leaders of the Republican caucus reminded the members of how much financial support the DeVoses could withhold.
They warned that the DeVoses would finance primary challenges against Republicans who defied her, as they had done to one who voted against the bill to lift the cap on charter schools five years earlier.
The DeVoses, said Representative Dave Pagel, a Republican who supported the commission, “made arguments that were strongly heard, and they prevailed.”
Another Republican, declining to comment for fear of alienating Ms. DeVos when she is poised to become a cabinet secretary, sent a link to an article detailing the DeVoses’ financial contributions to Republicans after the vote, saying it explained all there was to explain.
The House passed a bill that never included the language establishing the commission. The bill paid off the debt of Detroit Public Schools and returned the city’s traditional public schools to local control. And it will allow the state to close the schools at the bottom of existing state rankings, which Mr. Naeyaert said was proof that Ms. DeVos supported measures to ensure quality.
But that will mean shutting down mostly traditional public schools, which in Detroit serve the neediest students, and further desert students in neighborhoods where charters have largely declined to go.
“My complaint around this is not that you disagree,” said Ms. Allen, at the Skillman Foundation, “but that you never could come up with another solution to deal with the practical issues of poor public policy that is not only eroding a traditional school system, but eroding all schools.”