Howes: Snyder on track to 'own' Detroit education woes

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder is fond of reminding anyone who'll listen that he started "thinking" about Detroit's deep troubles about a year before he was elected in 2010.

To that list can be added public education in Detroit, a continuing outrage of mismanagement, under-performance and failed expectations over which the governor is exerting more control because the status quo is failing.

Critics decry his latest move — transferring the school reform office from the Department of Education to the Office of Management and Budget he oversees — evidently overlooking the risk it represents for Michigan's top Republican.

With each new step, the man whose team pushed Detroit through Chapter 9 bankruptcy in less than 15 months is on his way to "owning" public education in Detroit — emphasis here on the word owning.

The more the governor exerts influence over Detroit schools, the more he will be saddled with results that matter less to outstate Republicans and more to opposition Democrats and their allies in the teachers unions.

Gov. Rick Snyder

Gives new meaning to the phrase "break it, you own it." This isn't bankruptcy, a federal proceeding governed by 70 years of case law, judges, lawyers and a process generally well-understood by its practitioners, if not so much the general public.

This arguably is harder. Reversing the decades-long slide of public education in Detroit is a messy, contentious, emotion-laden exercise fraught with politics, ideology and the insistence that it's "all for the kids" when too often it really isn't.

This cannot be fixed with a debt restructuring, the chief aim of a Chapter 9 unlikely here. Nor with the closing of more schools; nor the badly needed winnowing of a bloated central bureaucracy; nor the charterization of schools city-wide.

Four consecutive emergency managers have not stemmed the student exodus that exacerbates the red ink because, in the Michigan model, students equal revenue. And a continuing decline in the student population, twinned with mounting losses, undercuts the state's credibility for fixing the problem.

Charters represent more competition for Detroit Public Schools, but their uneven performance and concerted campaigning against them (by unions and their allies in the news media) undercut their credibility, too.

As the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren approaches its deadline to issue recommendations for the city's schools, including their governance model, the state Board of Education is poised to select a new state superintendent.

The most likely choice, according to a source close to the process, is Brian Whiston, the superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools who is considered acceptable to the Michigan Education Association and the Democrat-controlled state board.

All of this movement, along with the election of a new president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers considered more radical than his predecessor, points to a coming partisan crack-up over education in Detroit.

Snyder would own that, too, unless a messy public confrontation can be averted. Radical change for education in Detroit is every bit as necessary as restructuring the city's finances, but the governor, his people and a diverse set of leaders are trying to achieve it without the clarifying discipline of bankruptcy.

How that would work is not yet clear. DPS enrollment is 45,000 today, down from 180,000 in 2000, in a system currently scaled to serve 80,000 students. The state is guaranteeing $420 million in bond debt and pension obligations, raising the specter of some kind of legislative involvement in restructuring the district's books.

Snyder is moving to own education in Detroit because he has little choice. The state's obligation to educate the children of Detroit is detailed in the state constitution; the city is a legal subdivision of the state; and the city's schools are manifestly broken, a moral travesty.

In both the run-up to, and the execution of, Detroit's epic bankruptcy, Snyder and his team demonstrated a thoughtful approach informed by a keen grasp of the city's finances and Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

In the case of education in Detroit, they arguably have less control, fewer outside resources and fewer political options. Before it's all over — if that's possible — there will be calls for a "Grand Bargain II" to relieve the district's debts, ensure its pensions and boost teacher pay (which needs to happen).

Less likely to come forward are corporate and foundation benefactors (or Lansing politicians) with any kind of meaningful assistance absent radical change in the way public education in Detroit is dispensed and managed.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at