Mackinac Island — Former Michigan Gov. John Engler has a solution for Detroit’s ailing public schools — let Mayor Mike Duggan or any successor run them.
The estimated 48,000-student school district has lost about 100,000 students during the past 10 years. Many Detroit parents have chosen to send them to charter schools and surrounding suburban school districts, the former three-term GOP governor said in an interview on the sidelines of the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
Mayors control the governance of major school districts such as Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C.
“At the local level, in places like Detroit, the schools need to be as they are in many places, a part of what the mayor’s responsibility is,” said Engler, the retired president of the Business Roundtable, a national advocacy group for corporate chief executives.
“The mayor is a political figure who is held accountable. You couldn’t get 50 people in Detroit to be able to successfully name who is on the Detroit public school board.”
Putting the schools in the hands of Duggan would lead to a more efficient running of the schools, he said Saturday.
Engler suggested Duggan could manage the costs of maintaining the school district’s sprawling properties by having the city parks department oversee them. With Duggan’s track record of efficient management, the 68-year-old former governor said the Detroit district would have a better chance of getting Detroit students to flee charter schools and come back from districts like Southfield.
Duggan’s office declined comment.
Engler didn’t mention Duggan’s November general election opponent, state Sen. Coleman Young II, whose father is credited with helping Engler win a narrow victory in 1990 by failing to turn out city voters because of a feud with fellow Democrat and then-Gov. Jim Blanchard.
The Detroit school system “went down the tubes” after the state under Engler installed the reform board, Young’s campaign manager Adolph Mongo said Saturday. “The governor hasn’t been in the state for a while.”
Engler reiterated his opposition to letting Duggan or any Detroit mayor have power over the opening or closing of the city’s public school academies -- also known as charter schools.
In May 2016, Engler opposed a plan championed by Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate Republicans and Duggan to create a commission with the power to block some charter school operators from opening additional schools in Detroit. He called any constraints on charter schools “morally wrong,” especially in a Detroit school district where 19 of 20 students can’t read proficiently.
The commission proposal stalled out in the Michigan House.
Engler’s idea about mayoral control of schools is a reprise with a twist of his 1999 legislation that took away power from the Detroit school board and gave it to a seven-member reform board with six appointees from then-Mayor Dennis Archer and one appointee by Engler.
The mayoral school board then choose a powerful chief executive to run the school system, with the governor’s board member having a veto over the CEO selection. Engler’s representative exercised the veto on the board’s first selection before it settled on then-Colorado Springs, Colorado Superintendent Kenneth Burnley.
In November 2005, Detroit voters overwhelmingly rejected continuing the mayoral reform board model, with critics calling it a state takeover and a usurping of voter rights. The finances of the district plummeted after the return of an elected school board, prompting Democratic then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm to name the first of several emergency financial managers to oversee the district.
Detroit officials have welcomed the return this year of control of the city’s public schools to an elected school board. But Engler, who marshaled through the mid-1990s laws that created charter schools and a state-centered financing of public schools, said with only 5 percent of Detroit students reading proficiently, the long history of prior school board failure isn’t reassuring.
“How can anybody support the lack of performance we have today?” Engler said. “... This is about children.”
“The customers are voting 2-1 against the system,” he said, referring to Detroit students in charter schools or surrounding suburban districts, “and the voices on the outside mostly have other agendas or are seeking to create an issue that they maybe they can capitalize for any personal reason they got or political reason.”