Because it has no choice, the state Legislature is conceding defeat and slowly returning Detroit Public Schools to local control.
It starts with approval Thursday of $48.7 million in emergency funding. The infusion should avert payless paydays two weeks from today, but a longer-term bailout will hinge on whether the Republican-controlled House can quell urges to settle scores with the teachers union and do its job.
We’ll see. The temptation to limit collective bargaining and replace defined-benefit pensions with 401(k)-style retirement plans as the price for rescuing DPS is powerful inside the GOP, especially among House conservatives. Joining the battle would enrage DPS teachers and their Democratic allies in the Legislature, even as it sparks a war between labor and school districts statewide.
The confrontation would do nothing to atone for the state’s failure to fix Detroit’s beleaguered schools during a decade-and-a-half of emergency management. Nor would it contain a financial liability for state taxpayers that far exceeds the $715 million debt-relief package Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is pushing.
The arc of this educational humbling is unmistakable: a 16-year run of state control of Michigan’s largest school district — under Democratic and Republican governors — failed to reverse the exodus of students and failed to materially improve academic achievement. It also exposed the limitations of both the state’s emergency manager law and Chapter 9 bankruptcy:
A workout in federal court can restructure the district’s books, but the process is not designed to improve academic performance or rebuild the district’s governance model — three reasons why Speaker Kevin Cotter’s idle threat that bankruptcy should remain “on the table” for DPS does not reflect reality.
Accordingly, the Snyder administration and state lawmakers are poised to give DPS backers the tools — chiefly, debt relief and a commission that arguably could help DPS and hinder rival charter schools — to shape the district’s future.
What its mostly yet-to-be-named leaders do with those tools remains to be seen because restoring power and control to elected officials does not guarantee positive results. Just ask any of the district’s last four emergency managers, whose allegedly unfettered power delivered neither the promised results nor reform.
DPS backers insist this time will be different. How? The 47,000-student district remains scaled for some 80,000 students, meaning the debt relief envisioned in the rescue package will free roughly $1,100 per student for instruction but it won’t balance operating costs with revenue. Shrinking the district’s footprint will.
The teachers union, executing a series of rolling sickouts, is angry and frustrated; its leadership is fractured, with former President Steve Conn advocating confrontation over cooperation; many of the district’s schools remain in deplorable condition, a legacy of mismanagement, neglect and corruption.
Would newly elected school board members understand those realities better than their predecessors and summon the courage to act on them? Could new leadership emulate the Detroit automakers’ reformed relationship with the United Auto Workers and become partners with DPS teachers instead of remaining adversaries?
Weariness and a second-chance can beget change; so can treating the other side with professional respect. Would a new school board elected in the shadow of a functioning City Council, and a mayor who actually builds and maintains relationships with its members, govern more responsibly than its predecessors?
Mayor Mike Duggan, for one, thinks so. Many others are probably not so sure. In an interview this week with NewsTalk 760-WJR’s Frank Beckmann, the mayor predicted that Detroit would generate a solid field of candidates for the school board and that Detroiters would take the job of electing them seriously.
His confidence represents one of two things: the triumph of hope over lots of experience, or an astute reading of a shifting public mood. Namely, that nearly a generation of failure and state oversight of public education in Detroit will produce serious candidates who will coalesce into a functional school board.
We’ll see. The long, sorry history of public education in Detroit, particularly over the past generation, requires skepticism — and a willingness to relegate past failures to the past.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.