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Howes: Detroit schools plan could be a step back

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The battle is on to chart a viable future for public education in Detroit.

As promised, a high-powered coalition issued its series of recommendations Monday, and they basically boiled down to getting the state out of the city's schools, and making sure Lansing takes $350 million in Detroit Public Schools debt with it.

State oversight of DPS, evinced by four consecutive emergency managers and growing deficits, is widely considered a failure. The creation of an Education Achievement Authority to oversee the state's worst-performing schools is a failure. Standards for public charter schools are deemed uneven and opaque.

"All we're asking for is a level playing field," said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan and a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

Translation: Return governance of the steadily disappearing school district to a locally elected school board. This, the failed model of micro-managing and bickering that paved the way for emergency management under a Democratic governor and her Republican successor.

What has changed to ensure a different outcome or more robust management is not at all clear. What will exact discipline on local governance and its oversight of management? What assurance is there that a re-empowered school board would steer clear of its bad old habits?

And if neither of those can be positively answered by deeds, not words, why should parents believe the new regime is likely to be any better than the discredited old ones that drove tens of thousands of schoolchildren into charter and suburban schools?

"Parents and community members will have a voice and will be expected to step up," the coalition report says. "DPS school leaders will have control over key decisions in their buildings and be expected to step up if they want to earn and keep this freedom.

"Public charter school authorizers, boards and education management organizations will retain their autonomy, but will be held for accountable for providing a quality education. The school board will regain its authority over DPS and, like its charter counterparts, will be held accountable for providing a quality education."

Held accountable by whom? There is no federal judge here to confirm a plan of adjustment and the power to hold district leadership to it. There is no governor with a record of successful state oversight (or management) of schools in Detroit.

There are no corporate heavyweights overtly demanding change in the educational talent issuing from Detroit's schools. Instead, there is a coalition vowing that "the choice is ours," an apt observation that instills little confidence, given the downward spiral of public education in Detroit.

In a statement, Gov. Rick Snyder promised to "thoroughly review the coalition's recommendations" as the state works on a "comprehensive approach to reform." He pledged to seek "areas of alignment and common ground in the weeks ahead."

Meaning the coalition's recommendations are just that. Snyder being Snyder, it's a near-certainty his team is well into crafting reform proposals likely to be as sweeping as the historic bankruptcy he ordered for the city of Detroit.

It's also a near-certainty that he is unlikely to fully endorse the coalition's recommendations. They aim to reassert a status quo that culminated in emergency management in the first place. Second, they effectively demand the state abandon its efforts to reform education in Detroit.

"I don't think" the coalition's recommendations are "sticking a finger in the eye of the state by any means," says Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber and a member of the coalition's finance subcommittee.

Maybe not. But they do project an unmistakable grab to restore power and control to local hands without the kind of governance and managerial reform that could instill confidence and signal a fresh start.

If any town should know better, it's this one, the national epicenter of reckoning, restructuring and bankruptcy. A timeless rule in all three is that financial and public support are tied to radical change in operations, management and business model. If not, no deal.

"Is the district in trouble? Yeah, they are," state Sen. Phil Pavlov, a St. Clair Township Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told The Detroit News. "I just don't know if going back to the old way of business solves that."

Recognizing the dismal state of academic achievement in Detroit, as the coalition does throughout its report, is one step forward. But reasserting the old power centers is two steps back — the definition of the old Detroit two-step.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.