When hit with a fiscal crisis, Highland Park turned to the same solution that many companies take advantage of when they are attempting to save money: outsourcing. Starting next fall, the district — one of the lowest-performing in the entire state of Michigan — will turn over the operation of all its schools to a for-profit charter company.
The decision will affect three schools and nearly 1,000 students. City leaders explained that the drastic step was necessary for the city to avoid complete financial collapse.
The sudden announcement has raised concerns among the local parents. But the concern was mixed with relief, since many had begun to doubt if the town could scrape together enough money to keep the schools operating at all.
The company slated to take over the schools, Leona Group LLC, sought to address these concerns at a public meeting held last week. The company representatives who spoke reassured parents that their first priority is improving the academic outcomes of Highland kids.
And the kids could use the help. Over the last several years, more than 75% of the district students failed the state reading exam, and nearly 90% failed the test in mathematics. The situation in the district's only high school is even more dire. Not a single student tested at grade level in mathematics, and a paltry 10% were found to be proficient in English.
"I have a lot of questions, but I'm hopeful that it will turn out for the best," Cynthia Gresham, a school volunteer and parent of an incoming senior at Highland Park Community High School, said at the meeting.
Districts nationwide are trying radical approaches to shake up financially and academically troubled schools, including dismissing the entire staff or turning several schools over to outside groups to run.
Highland is only the second district in Michigan to try such a radical approach to fix a broken education system, but around the country, districts in several states have done the same thing. In particular, a number of school districts in Georgia replaced all their public schools with charters when attempts to negotiate with the unions over teacher salaries and class-size limits failed.
In those cases, the district administration generally remains in place and oversees schools, but each school creates a council of teachers and parents that make hiring and budget decisions. New Orleans has taken one of the most extreme approaches by converting most of its schools to charters and allowing students to use state-funded vouchers to attend private schools.
Charter schools—public schools run by outside entities using taxpayer funds—are free from many administrative constraints, including union contracts, and typically spend less than traditional schools per student.