Howes: Detroit schools fix next challenge for leaders

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Everyone knows K-12 education in Detroit is a jumbled mess of uneven standards, competing systems and acronyms — DPS, EAA and charters, some good, some not so much.

Enrollment in public schools continues an inexorable decline. Teacher morale is low. The district is on its fourth emergency manager. And the prospect of Chapter 9 bankruptcy is real, though not preferred in Detroit or Lansing.

You'd expect a decade of continuing crisis would focus the managerial mind more acutely, that the exodus of students, the cutting of teachers, staff and capacity would occasion a corresponding reduction in central administration brass.

But you'd be wrong, according to the district's 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. A set of statistics, gathered from pages 160 to 186 of the district's 2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, makes the point:

DPS had 200 central administration officers in 2005 when it had 8,149 teachers and 15,693 employees serving 134,215 students. Last year, DPS had more administrators — 204 — for 3,100 teachers and 6,535 employees serving 49,546 students.

That's four more administrators than a decade earlier to man the bureaucracy and oversee 62 percent fewer teachers and 58 percent fewer employees serving 63 percent fewer students. Can you say management problem?

"At some point, we have to stop believing that regulation is the same as accountability," Tonya Allen, CEO of The Skillman Foundation, said Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Detroit Policy Conference. "It is not. Michigan is probably the last state in the country that can say we don't need help."

Detroit most of all. Reforming education in the city — how it's delivered, who delivers it and what standards it demands — is the next challenge for a diverse group of leaders, decision-makers, politicians, funders, parents and, yes, business.

"Unless" business leaders "decide that education is the driver of the economy and educational achievement is what matters most," said Lou Glazer, CEO of Michigan Future Inc., "we're going to end up with more of this partisan bickering."

He's got that right. Change is coming to public education in Detroit because its manifest shortcomings are impossible to ignore. State-imposed emergency management has struggled or failed, a point Gov. Rick Snyder readily concedes.

Debt service for past operating deficits is estimated to be $1,200 per student, according to calculation by the finance subcommittee of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. Competition with charters is fueling a counter-productive race for students and teachers alike.

The coalition, a diverse panel of leaders from different political and professional bents, is pressing to meet a self-imposed March 31 deadline to forward recommendations to the governor. Fresh off Detroit's historic bankruptcy, he would prefer locally generated solutions to a systemic problem fraught with emotion.

"I think the solutions are going to be incredibly far-reaching," John Rakolta, chairman of Walbridge and the coalition's finance subcommittee, told The Detroit News. If the restructuring of Detroit is any indication, he's probably right.

Like the bankruptcies used to transform General Motors Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Detroit, the deepening crisis of public education in Detroit is a rare opportunity to forge a new model that would demand high standards, project transparency and put student achievement ahead of adult aggrandizement.

In an ideal world, maybe, free from ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum. The truth is that reforming Detroit's broken education system will require a) cooperation across b) a broad spectrum of political interests, business and philanthropy that is c) attuned to community sensitivities and d) nominally partisan.

It carries political risk for both sides. A push for common standards and potential spending would rankle the GOP majority, and a demand for accountability and flexibility among union teachers would challenge a traditional Democratic constituency.

Managing such political backlash is a prime reason business is more willing to push for increased higher ed funding than back reform for public education in Detroit. It's safer and less messy.

"The business community has been engaged in the education debate in Detroit," Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit chamber, said, citing General Motors Foundation's support for Detroit schools. But "we don't have a unified agenda for education."

It's time they did. Vaulting Michigan into the ranks of Top Ten states, a mantra of the axis connecting Lansing to the business community, is a noble enough goal — and achievable, in limited economic categories.

But it's less credible when one of the nation's most broken public school systems exists alongside a resurgent downtown and its story of redemption. An opportunity, like a crisis, is a terrible thing to waste.


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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.