STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

A vision for how to make school choice work better in Detroit

courtesy of Dan Varner

Dan Varner went to law school, dreaming he could change the world. When he got out, he got a job at a firm that handled class-action discrimination lawsuits. 

"Got what I thought was a great job at a great firm," he says. "And became one of many unhappy attorneys."

He was unhappy because he realized the work wasn’t having any impact. So he got another job. He worked as a public defender for people accused of committing federal crimes.

"And I had this sense of this parade of largely black young men coming through my office," Varner says of his experience there. He says these men were "accused of committing crimes that most of them had committed, and who were going away to prison, for whom I couldn’t do much – A – and then B – for whom the education system had failed ... So at that point, I really began this journey back upstream."

He stopped being a lawyer, and ended up in education.

Varner now serves on the State Board of Education. He heads up an organization called Excellent Schools Detroit.  One of the big things the organization does is put outa scorecard ranking every one of the more than 200 schools in Detroit. 

The score card includes information like test scores, but also test score improvement over time, and a category called “school climate,” which is scored using site visits and survey responses. Varner says this is information the government should provide, but doesn’t.

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It’s vital information, especially in Detroit right now, with what Varner calls "an explosion of charter schools and a dizzying set of choices" when it comes to education.

"I think if choice is going to be a solution here, we actually have to create a system that supports parents in choosing well," he says.

Varner says that support should include good information, presented in a way that makes it easy for parents to compare schools.

But it also includes some structural components that Varner says are lacking right now in Detroit.

"If we were serious about school choice in this city and in this state, we would have a common enrollment system so that parents could fill out one form, and rank order the schools they’re interested in," he says. "We would have a common transportation system, like they do in Washington D.C., so that you could actually, as a parent, put your kid on a bus and get them to schools across town, without having to figure it out for yourself."

"I am not interested in funding prison guards and prisons in this state because we are not courageous enough to do the right thing when we have a bad school." - Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit

Varner says ultimately, if we were serious about school choice, we would have a comprehensive plan for closing the schools that fail to meet standards, and we would help the kids and families at those schools find new options.

"I get that that is a difficult thing to do for communities," Varner says. "But I sat in my office, and watched that parade of men come through it who were headed to prison. And I am not interested in funding prison guards and prisons in this state because we are not courageous enough to do the right thing when we have a bad school."

There is now more talk from state superintendent Mike Flanagan about shutting down charter school authorizers when their schools don’t perform well. But Varner’s not just talking about closing charter schools.

To him, it’s a more basic point for all of our efforts in education and in our communities: If something you’re doing now isn’t having the impact you want it to have, stop doing it. Do something else.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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