DETROIT – Long frustrated by failed efforts to turn around Michigan's worst public schools, top Republican officials decided it was time for a drastic measure: shut down 38 schools that were ranked continually in the bottom 5 percent statewide and shift their students to better options elsewhere.
It's not a new idea. School closings have been ordered in get-tough initiatives in other places in recent years, such as New York City and Denver, to get kids into higher-quality environments.
But instead of a solution, Michigan's move has triggered panic by suggesting sending thousands of inner-city kids 40 to 50 miles away. And officials find themselves in a quandary again about the sheer scale of the state's education dilemma, especially in Detroit.
After notifying parents in January of schools that could be closed this summer, Gov. Rick Snyder's administration discovered that the superior schools that supposedly could absorb the 18,000 displaced students mostly don't exist — at least, not anywhere nearby. Children at 25 schools in Detroit were directed to schools that in some cases were closer to the Ohio border than to Detroit.
Unlike districts in rural states where schools are far apart, Detroit doesn't have buses for high school students. And many low-income parents don't have cars.
"Right now I have no clue. I'm in a puzzle like everybody else," said Roquesha O'Neal, whose two children attend Osborn High School on the city's east side. "We're just waiting for the state to tell us what's the next move."
State School Reform Officer Natasha Baker, who informed the parents of the proposed school closures, said the students shouldn't stay where they are.
"It's important for kids to have access to college, careers and jobs once they leave high school. They can't do that if they're struggling with reading and math," she said.
State officials are pondering what to do, but it appears most if not all of the closings won't happen anytime soon. School superintendents will get more chances for improvement, and the GOP-led Legislature will consider how to revise the 7-year-old school law to provide a more realistic blueprint for turnarounds here.
Education reform initiatives across the nation often use a series of steps for upgrading poor schools, from requiring a steady uptick in test scores, to replacing principals and teachers, to closing schools in the most extreme cases.
Detroit's school district has been under state oversight for the last eight years. Last year, lawmakers approved a $617 million bailout to deal with its enormous debt.
But fixing the academics has been harder. Unlike other cities where ailing schools may be a local bus ride away from better ones, Detroit's options are few and far between. Only five of the city's 97 public schools, and 14 of the 56 charter schools, rank above the bottom 25 percent statewide.
Students were directed to Monroe, 40 miles southwest of Detroit, and northern Oakland County, about an hour drive away, "simply because we found more choice," said Baker, adding, "If we only use one or two miles, I can't in many cases find a quality option for a parent."
In the districts listed as options, officials were rattled by the prospect of an exodus of Detroit students heading their way.
"Right now, we don't have the seats," said Ryan McLeod, the school superintendent in Eastpointe, a city just north of Detroit that has one of its own schools on the state closure list. "Our practice as a district has been to right-size our staff based on what our enrollment looks like."
Families attending Osborn High, which has about 680 students, found only one school anywhere nearby that wasn't also on the closing list.
However, that school, East English Village, "is over capacity. There is literally not a school within two miles that students could attend," said Jack Elsey, chief schools officer for Michigan's education turnaround authority.
State Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the school turnaround law should be scrapped in favor of something more workable.
"We haven't heard anybody explain a good path of where these kids are going to go to get a better education than the one they're getting now," he said.
O'Neal said Osborn parents are starting to become more involved in the school, and should be given more time to improve it.
"We can turn it around," she said. "When we have parent engagement we do turn schools around."
Eggert reported from Lansing, Mich.