Kyle Smitley is a successful woman. She graduated from law school, founded and later sold a multimillion-dollar company in California and then moved back to the Midwest to open a charter school in Detroit — all before the age of 30.
Moved by the power of school choice that she witnessed while in business, she wanted to offer the same sort of opportunity to families in Detroit. In 2012, after two unsuccessful applications, she secured a charter from Grand Valley State University to open Detroit Achievement Academy.
Since it serves students in one of the neediest parts of the city, 90 percent of the academy’s students come from low-income families. The school's energetic leader and its high-impact mission attracted attention from the Public Broadcasting Service and support from celebrity Ellen DeGeneres. DAA was one of only two schools in Michigan’s largest city to earn the state's highest accountability rating in 2016.
That same year, we were privileged to visit the school. Smitley's passionate can-do attitude clearly came through, helping to explain why early indicators showed the school's students were beating the odds. “We believe kids in poverty in Detroit can succeed at high levels if given the resources,” she said. “It’s not rocket science if you put kids at the front of the dialogue.”
Later that year, Smitley opened Detroit Prep in the city's Indian Village neighborhood. Its current student body, kindergartners to second-grade students, is now packed into a church basement and is scheduled to grow beyond its capacity when next fall's enrollment comes.
Smitley and her co-founders set out to build a racially and economically diverse school in a neighborhood which caters to a mix of poorer city residents and younger urban professionals. About half the students are African-American and around 40 percent are white. In total, two-thirds of the students qualify for lunch subsidies due to low family income.
While Detroit Prep students have yet to reach third grade and take the state's required tests, other assessments indicate the school is effective. All the kindergartners and first-graders achieved their “expected growth” target in math, which put the school in the top 1 percent nationally. Most of the students also met the target for reading, learning 35 to 40 percent more than the typical student nationwide.
But last fall, Smitley and the school had a problem. The young but successful charter school was in danger of being choked off before it could fully grow. Dozens of urban students near the start of their academic careers were in danger of being left out. And the low-income neighborhood was set to miss out on a new asset.
Detroit Prep was growing and needed to move out from the church basement and into a new location. Luckily, a mile down the road sits the former Anna Joyce Elementary School. It was part of Detroit Public Schools until the downsizing district permanently closed its doors in 2009. Five years later, district leaders sold the building to a private developer. Today the building sits abandoned and in disrepair, but it’s in a perfect location and is just the right size for an expanding Detroit Prep.
Smitley’s school entered a purchase agreement in summer 2017 to buy the facility, and wanted to move quickly to begin construction by 2018 so students could occupy a safe, sound and clean building for the next school year.
But the public school district refused. For years, district and local government officials in Detroit had worked to block public charter schools. They pushed legislation at the Michigan Capitol to hinder them, refused to sell to them, transferred surplus buildings from the district to the city government and imposed deed restrictions on property sales to private developers. All of it was aimed to hinder or even prevent charter school choice outside the confines of the Detroit school district.
The district has been the nation’s worst-rated public school system for a decade, its schools perform far worse than charter schools and it required significant cash bailouts from Lansing. The Legislature rebuffed a call for a new bureaucracy to ration charter schools in the city and even passed two laws to keep the district from discriminating against charter schools.
But it didn’t work. The new leadership at DPS used a perceived loophole in state law to deny Detroit Prep the opportunity to buy a suitable building. When asked why he blocked the sale, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told members of a House committee, “We, as a school district, find the act problematic, that it usurps the right of elected school boards to determine the future of their own assets.”
In other words, the district wants to take taxpayer dollars from the state but retain the authority to discriminate against other public schools and their students. That approach may serve the interest of the district, but not the people of Michigan or the schoolchildren of Detroit.
The problem for Smitley was that if the charter couldn't own the building at the start of 2018, it wouldn't be able to get the remodeling work done to open during the 2018-19 school year.
Detroit Prep was willing to pay the developer 20 percent more than the $750,000 asking price. It even offered to pay DPS $75,000 if it removed the deed restriction it placed on the property. Still, the district would not budge.
In October, Detroit Prep took the district to court with the help of a school parent, an attorney who took the case pro bono. But the legal case dragged on, so Smitley went to the Mackinac Center and her state association — the Michigan Association of Public School Academies — for help.
Within days of learning the situation, choice-friendly legislators introduced a bill to close the loophole, and key lawmakers were pushing the reform. House Rep. Tim Kelly, Sen. Phil Pavlov and legislative leaders Tom Leonard and Arlan Meekhof all moved quickly to ensure Detroit was abiding by the plain intent of the law.
The story that the large, financially strapped district turned down money and spent cash to crush a small competitor made national news. The Wall Street Journal editorialized about the situation, The Heritage Foundation weighed in and media outlets in state picked up the story. WDIV-TV in Detroit did a report, giving it even more attention.
The widely circulated story generated outrage from citizens, which helped propel the legislation forward. Early in 2018, Gov. Rick Snyder signed it. That closed the legal case; Detroit Prep and the district are in talks to come to a final agreement.
This story isn’t just about one charter school, though. It’s about a bloated district fighting to keep power and restrict the choices available to parents — to the detriment of children. It’s about public entities trying to stop new competitors. It’s about citizens sharing a story and pushing their lawmakers to solve a problem — and leaders who were already in place to do the right thing.
The Mackinac Center fights “for liberty and opportunity for all people.” There is no guarantee of success — that’s mostly up to individuals — but people deserve the opportunity to flourish. And now thanks to the hard work of pro-liberty advocates, many more Detroit schoolchildren will have a real hope of success.