GOP lawmaker: Dissolve DPS, try school vouchers

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — An influential Republican lawmaker wants to shutter Detroit Public Schools and give the district’s 47,000 students a voucher-like $7,200 benefit to pay for their education at a private school or another public school.

State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, wants to challenge the constitutional prohibition on vouchers by limiting an “open choice” program to letting Detroit parents take their children to private schools or new charter public schools that would replace DPS.

But he’d also like to develop a voucher-like program for all students across the entire state.

“We ought to ... free these students to go (to school) wherever and whenever they want to go,” said Kelly, who chairs the House’s School Aid appropriations subcommittee. “I think what’s good for Detroit is good for everybody else.”

The proposed taxpayer-funded “education opportunity card” or savings account would be similar to cash welfare debit cards, Kelly said.

Kelly proposed Wednesday an “alternative” to Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to create a new debt-free DPS that retained union contracts and sheds $500 million in operating debt the district has mostly accumulated during six years of state-appointed emergency management.

The Republican governor is expected to jump-start his DPS reforms this fall.

Kelly pegs the total cost of “bailing out Detroit” schools at $700 million, or roughly $50 to $75 per student annually for the next decade.

“We have blood on our hands. We’ve sent the EMs there, they’ve done a horrible job,” Kelly said. “We’re responsible.”

Snyder wants to leave the existing debt behind in an old school district that would still have the power to collect the 18-mill non-homestead millage to pay down the old debt. The governor also wants to create an education commission that would have the power to open and close failing schools run by the new DPS and existing charter schools.

Kelly opposes creating a new Detroit district and adding another layer of oversight.

“Why do you need a district if you have open choice?” Kelly said.

Kelly acknowledged his vouchers program would likely face legal challenges.

“Perhaps we should challenge that and let the lawsuits come,” he said.

Kelly’s white paper outlining his proposals mirrors the “any time, any place” education system proposals Lansing barrister Richard McLellan was developing for Snyder in 2013.

Snyder shelved McLellan’s plans after The Detroit News reported on the existence of a secretive work group McLellan assembled to develop a lower-cost education model under the label of a “skunk works.” McLellan’s plans at the time entailed a voucher-like system called a “Michigan Education Card.”

Kelly acknowledged Thursday that McLellan “was a collaborator” in his proposal.

Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said the governor’s office is “reviewing” Kelly’s “suggestions.”

“It’s clear he’s among the people who are passionate about providing all public school students in Detroit the quality education they need and deserve to be successful in life,” Murray said in a statement. “This work is ongoing, and we certainly will consider any thoughtful approach as we move forward.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com