Senate panel hears debate on Detroit school oversight

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

State education officials, charter school advocates and Detroit area business leaders testified before a state Senate panel Tuesday, debating whether a restructuring of the city’s education system should include a commission that could open and close schools.

The Detroit Education Commission proposed by Gov. Rick Snyder isn’t part of a two-bill package being considered in the state Senate, but it should be, according to most of the 16 people who spoke before the Senate Government Operations Committee.

John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, said what’s missing in the legislation is a change in the state’s policies that “have allowed new schools to be opened anywhere, without regard to community need nor attention to the quality of education.”

Austin said Detroit has “too many schools spending precious tax dollars, chasing too few students, and with no single quality standard,” resulting in only 40 percent of the city’s schoolchildren attending the financially failing Detroit Public Schools.

Austin told lawmakers 164 public schools have opened or closed in Detroit during the last seven years, by 12 separate authorizers, resulting in what he described as “educational chaos.”

The Senate legislation contains aspects of Snyder’s $715 million plan to rescue DPS, which carries hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and could run out of money by April. Some parts of the governor’s proposal mirror those made last year by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which called for creating a new, debt-free Detroit district and returning control to an elected school board.

Snyder said Tuesday that he continues to support the Detroit Education Commission concept, which he called for when first unveiling his citywide education plan last spring.

“There wasn’t a lot of support for it last year; now there seems to be growing support, so I hope that’s part of the legislative process to have a healthy discussion on that topic,” Snyder said.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, suggested his caucus has already made meaningful concessions on the Detroit education bills but acknowledged ongoing talks about uniform oversight.

“I don’t know if it’s DEC, I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to find a way to solve the problem for kids,” he said.

Coalition members and supporters who addressed the Senate committee backed Austin’s call for an education commission.

“An uncontrolled education marketplace has produced failing schools that are depriving children in Detroit from getting the foundation they need to compete in their own city’s economy,” said Shirley Stancato, a member of the coalition’s steering committee. “We need a Detroit Education Commission, a neutral body of locally appointed leaders charged with bringing order, stability and excellence to all Detroit schools.”

Coalition co-chair John Rakolta Jr. said Detroit’s education system needs debt relief and greater accountability, including for charter schools.

“The coalition is comprised of people from all sides of the table,” he said. “Many of our members are charter advocates; we’re not anti-charter. But charters use public money and as such need public oversight.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group, took issue with so much focus on DPS.

“Some have portrayed us as outsiders and not relative to the discussion, but we represent 150,000 families,” said Quisenberry. “I’m here to represent those voices. We released a survey in October showing that 75 percent of parents said they want more school choices, not less.”

Quisenberry has previously criticized proposals for a citywide education system, saying it would impede local, neighborhood control of schools.

“This legislation is moving in the right direction,” he said. “But Michigan should be moving rapidly toward an accountability system with standards making sure every child is college or career ready.”

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Jonathan Oosting contributed.