U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Thursday that Detroit's next mayor must take accountability for the city's schools, and he challenged the state's largest district to compete for grants that will be awarded to schools that try innovative reforms to improve student performance.
Duncan noted in a conference call with reporters that Detroit is in the middle of a mayoral race that he said can be significant for the future of the troubled school district.
"The idea of mayoral control (of the schools) is being debated," he said. "It's important for the mayor of Detroit to be held accountable, to be part of the solution for much better student achievement there."
Gov. Jennifer Granholm earlier this month called for mayoral control of the Detroit Public Schools. Duncan, CEO of Chicago public schools since 2001, said the mayor took over the schools there in 1995, and that it led to marked improvement in education.
"Some of the most innovative work is happening in places where the mayor had the courage to step up and provide leadership," he said.
Duncan said earlier this month that he loses sleep over "the poor quality of education" Detroit students are getting.
He repeated those concerns Thursday and said he has talked with Granholm and state schools Superintendent Michael Flanagan.
"I do worry a lot about Detroit," he said. "The dropout rate there is staggering. The quality of education is a travesty.
"There is a huge opportunity for Detroit and the state of Michigan ... to innovate and do things differently."
He said the city schools should apply for so-called "Race to the Top Fund" dollars in President Barack Obama's budget. That $5 billion pot of cash will go to districts willing to make dramatic changes, he said.
"We'll only invest in a limited number of states willing to radically challenge the status quo," Duncan said. "If Detroit is willing to challenge the status quo, it can compete for some of these grants."
He said the budget and the stimulus package also include billions more in Title I money for at-risk children. Obama's newly appointed secretary added that the quality of education for students in Detroit "is desperately unfair to them in far too many cases. That has to change and it has to change as fast as possible."