Return DPS to school board, shut EAA, coalition urges

Jennifer Chambers, Chad Livengood, and Shawn D. Lewis

A seismic shakeup of education in Detroit proposed Monday calls for returning control of Detroit Public Schools to an elected school board, having the state assume $350 million in district debt, and giving a mayoral-appointed commission control of all school closures and openings.

Those are among the ambitious recommendations rolled out by the 36-member Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren after three months of studying the city's fractured system of public education and persistent financial problems at DPS.

The coalition, which sent its recommendations to Gov. Rick Snyder, also wants all Education Achievement Authority schools returned to DPS control.

Snyder created the EAA in 2011 to turn around the state's lowest-performing schools. He asked the coalition for new ideas on raising achievement standards and better coordinating the delivery of education within the city's patchwork of public schools run by DPS, independent charter schools and the EAA, which took over 15 former DPS schools.

Coalition members want to create a shared system of data, enrollment and neighborhood transportation to improve school choice in Detroit, making it easier for parents to learn about the quality of school options.

The report also calls for allocating funding based on student need, not by school governance type, and developing a strategy to recruit, develop and retain high-quality educators citywide.

Businessman John Rakolta Jr., who chaired the coalition's finance committee, said the state needs to relieve DPS of $350 million in debt it authorized under former emergency manager Roy Roberts to free up $53 million in annual repayments that is diverted away from classroom instruction.

"We don't see how you can have the most impoverished, the most at-risk students probably in the country and give them the least amount of dollars in the classroom," said Rakolta, CEO of the Walbridge construction company. "This was all accumulated while the state was in control."

In a statement, Snyder thanked the coalition members for their work and said his staff will thoroughly review the recommendations while working on a comprehensive reform plan to present to lawmakers.

"There must be higher standards for all schools," he said. "Detroit can only be a stronger, more vibrant city if its schools provide the opportunity for all students to be successful academically and in life."

Initial reaction to the report from Republican lawmakers, who control both houses of the Legislature, was skeptical.

"Is the district in trouble? Yeah, they are," said Sen. Phil Pavlov, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "I just don't know if going back to the old way of business solves that."

The report calls for the creation of a nonpartisan coordination entity, the Detroit Education Commission. The DEC would coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions, in partnership with regional councils, to incorporate neighborhood-level input.

The DEC would be a gatekeeper for opening, closing and siting all new schools in Detroit. It would not interfere with school decisions about hiring, budgets and curricula, but would coordinate citywide services in transportation, enrollment and special education.

System concerns voiced

Tonya Allen, coalition co-chair and Skillman Foundation CEO, said there are too many people in charge of education in Detroit. Some neighborhoods have too many schools and some don't have enough.

"This is hurting our kids. Let's be clear: Our children and our educators are not broken — it's the system," she said. "We want the same standard to be upheld in every school."

Charlie Beckham, who heads Mayor Mike Duggan's Neighborhoods Department, said the mayor supports the coalition's concept of a commission that acts as an "air traffic controller" for all public schools in Detroit, scrutinizing academic performance and offering universal busing, data-gathering and enrollment for DPS and charter school students.

Under the proposal, the DEC would have five to seven members appointed by the mayor, with a "lean" staff, Beckham said. "We made sure that commission doesn't turn into another bloated bureaucracy," said Beckham, who served on the coalition.

Duggan's role appointing commissioners would be different than direct mayoral power some of his counterparts have, Beckham said.

"It's not like in Chicago where (Mayor) Rahm Emanuel is down in the bowels of the schools," Beckham told The Detroit News. "We will not operate the schools."

Coalition co-chair Wendell Anthony said the coalition's position is very clear.

"We want the school board to be returned and the EAA infused back in to DPS. The timeline is based on what comes out of this, but sooner than later because the process needs to change," he said.

DPS school board president Herman Davis said he won't read the coalition's report, saying the group has "no legal authority."

"Now if they want to bring them to a school board meeting, once we regain power, that's great," he said. "We need to be on the same page — making the governor assume his responsibility to restore public education and all the priorities in the schools."

EAA parent Peggy Gordon, who has five children, ages 5 through 15, in EAA schools, also was critical of the coalition's proposals.

She said if Snyder follows the recommendation to dissolve the EAA, she will never allow her children to enroll in DPS.

"They will sink if they have to go back to DPS," said Gordon. "I will have to find a charter school that is not a DPS school, or else I'll just homeschool my children."

Charter changes sought

As for charter schools, the coalition is asking for changes to state law or local practices that would have authorizers and charter school boards improve transparency, focus more on quality and better coordinate all charter schools, and for authorizers to ensure independence of charter boards from management companies.

Charter advocates responded with criticism.

Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, said the report focuses more on recreating an ineffective bureaucracy than on the needs of the parents and students in Detroit.

"Only parents are in the position to truly understand the needs of their children and provide the best choices for their future. Charter schools are providing parents with a quality choice for their kids' education," Burkhart said.

DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley said he is pleased to see that the coalition's work parallels, reinforces and ultimately supports the district's own restructuring strategy, which he introduced this month.

Following the press conference, Earley said, "We support change in an orderly way. You can say what you want about timelines; my goal is to return to local control.

"My timeline is 18 months, but now it may be something less than this," he said.

(517) 371-3660

Where Detroit schoolchildren go

■City charter schools: 58,612

■Detroit Public Schools: 47,238

■Suburban charter schools: 17,000

■Suburban school districts: 8,000

■Education Achievement Authority: 6,500

Source: Detroit News staff reports