Detroit school overhaul unlikely by end of year

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — House School Aid Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kelly said Thursday it’s unlikely state lawmakers can approve by the end of this year the overhaul Gov. Rick Snyder wants for the troubled Detroit Public Schools.


Kelly’s comments are the latest from GOP legislative leaders who are resisting the Republican governor’s pressure to act soon on his Detroit school system proposals, which haven’t been introduced as legislation. The governor’s plan would cost the state up to $715 million over 10 years by drawing $70 million per year from the School Aid Fund for a proposed new Detroit Community School District.

“The Senate is going to take the first swing at this. I think it’s going to be difficult in (that) chamber; I know it will be difficult in ours,” the Saginaw Republican Kelly said following a presentation on educational savings accounts that Arizona and four other states are pioneering.

Kelly said the nine remaining days of legislative sessions in December aren’t enough time to overcome significant issues troubling lawmakers. He said he has told Snyder that “I can’t be on board; I think it’s the wrong remedy.”

The governor’s efforts to get the legislation introduced in the Republican-controlled Legislature have been stalled since May.

“The senators who have offered to sponsored the legislation still have questions about the legislation,” said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

McCann said Tuesday she expects the bills to be introduced on Dec. 1 when the Senate returns from its November recess for deer hunting and the Thanksgiving holiday.

Snyder’s proposal calls for splitting Detroit Public Schools into a new and old district. It would add new state oversight of finances, school placement and school performance.

Snyder’s proposed state funds infusion would replace the revenue from an 18-mill tax that would be diverted to the old district to pay off massive operating debt Snyder says is expected to top $515 million by next June.

“That’s an unfunded liability that would get spread to the other districts if DPS wasn’t making payments,” Snyder said in an October interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board.

The cost to the School Aid Fund would equal $50 per student statewide, which Kelly said makes the plan a big hurdle for lawmakers in the Republican majority. He said lawmakers have discussed with Snyder the need for “some other source” for the money.

“He understands the difficulty of asking up to $50 per student from the rest of the state to pay for this (when) it’s not of their making,” Kelly said.

But Snyder also argues that the money for Detroit schools wouldn’t keep state aid for other schools from increasing. “This does not have to come at the expense of any cut,” he said last month.

Craig Thiel, senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, told The Detroit News that Snyder’s argument is “semantics. Clearly you’re taking money that would be available to other school districts to help a single school district.”

Kelly said House Republicans could find bailout money for Detroit more palatable if there were separate education reforms statewide. He also said he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Detroit schools bailout unless the school system is rebuilt from the ground up.

“You can’t transition contracts; you’d have to rebuild,” Kelly said. “Otherwise, you’re just renaming the old, failed system.”

Kelly said education savings accounts, in which parents get a portion of the state’s per-pupil allotment to use at their discretion on approved educational options for their children, are an example of one option in an “all-of-the-above” approach to education reforms.

But the voucher-like approach might not square with the Michigan Constitution, which bars the use of public funds for private or parochial schools, he acknowledged.

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.