Cotter: DPS rescue can’t be at expense of charters

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — House Speaker Kevin Cotter said Thursday a plan to overhaul Detroit Public Schools “can’t be about saving” the state’s largest school district from a financial collapse at the expense of independently operated charter schools.

The Mount Pleasant Republican reiterated his opposition to creating a citywide commission that could regulate the opening of new schools operated by charters or DPS.

Cotter compared Detroit’s fractured system of public education options to competing fast-food restaurants vying for customers.

“If Burger King is struggling to sell hamburgers, the answer is not to close down McDonald’s and Wendy’s,” Cotter said. “But rather, Burger King needs to raise their game. They need to improve the quality of the product they’re putting out there. ... We need to improve (education) quality — and then the rest takes care of itself.”

Legislation bailing out the debt-ridden Detroit school system has reached a stalemate in the Capitol, as both sides appear more dug in than ever.

Cotter effectively declared any attempt to impose controls on parental choice and the growth of charter schools in Detroit a nonstarter for House Republicans, making his strongest stand to date against a plan favored by Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate Republicans and Mayor Mike Duggan.

The creation of a proposed Detroit Education Commission that could limit charter school expansion would create an “unequal playing field” in the city, Cotter said.

“This (legislation) cannot be about saving an entity. It can’t be about saving Detroit Public Schools,” Cotter said. “It has to be about improving education for all students, irrespective of where they attend school.”

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said the education commission would better manage the placement of public schools in Detroit.

“It’s not a big deal if there are large expanses of the city that don’t have a fast-food restaurant. It is a big deal if there’s large expanses of the city that don’t have schools in them,” Greimel said in response to Cotter’s Burger King analogy. “Schoolchildren have a right to an education. People don’t have a right to eat hamburgers.”

The Republican-controlled House and Senate remain deeply at odds over how to turn around the 45,786-student Detroit school district after more than seven years of state control under emergency managers.

Cotter’s House Republicans passed a $500 million plan that pays off $467 million of DPS debt and provides a new debt-free school district with a $33 million loan for transitional costs. But the Treasury Department projects the House plan would leave the new school district in a deficit within two months of its existence.

The Senate’s plan also would pay off the district’s operating and pension debt, but provide the new school system with $200 million in startup funding for cash flow, improved academic programs and fixing dilapidated buildings.

Senate Republicans also favor the creation of a citywide commission that could regulate the opening of new schools by DPS or charter operations. Only high-performing charter schools could “replicate” without approval of the commission, whose members would be appointed by Duggan.

Cotter said the dollar-amount difference between the two plans is the “second largest hurdle,” with the education commission being the biggest.

“That is a hurdle that has to be overcome and in our view cannot be part of the final plan,” Cotter said.

House Dems point a finger

House Democrats charge that Republican opposition to a Detroit Education Commission is done so at the behest of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter special interest group funded by the wealthy DeVos family. GLEP has lobbied heavily against the commission.

Over the past 10 years, members of the DeVos family have given about $1.1 million to the House Republican Campaign Committee, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“It’s no secret that the House Republicans rely heavily on the DeVos family for campaign contributions,” Greimel said. “That and that alone is driving House Republicans to obstruct what is a very good Senate plan from being acted upon.”

Greg McNeilly, the DeVos family’s political lieutenant and a GLEP board member, denied earlier this week that campaign donations are being withheld from Republican legislators over the DPS legislation and fired back at education commission supporters.

“Since they can’t win and rig the system for themselves, they’re whining and creating a false issue,” McNeilly told The News.

The increasingly politically charged debate over DPS has caused one prominent Republican and charter school advocate to call for a cease-fire.

“The whole thing has taken a very negative turn and needs to be rethought, in my judgment,” said Clark Durant, founder of Cornerstone Schools, which operates four charters in Detroit.

Durant was part of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group of business, civic, education and religious leaders that called last year for a return of DPS to a locally elected school board and restraints on the growth of charter schools.

On Thursday, Durant said lawmakers should focus on giving DPS “a fresh start” financially and set aside the divisive charter school debate for now.

“I believe we’re trying to do too much too quickly because of the urgency of the set of circumstances,” Durant said.

‘There is no consensus’

Cotter commented on the state of DPS legislation negotiations Thursday during a press conference on a proposal to beef up the powers of state departments to fire bad employees.

Two weeks have passed since the House sent the Senate its DPS plan following a marathon 15-hour session — and there’s been no sign of the stalemate dissipating.

“There is no consensus,” said state Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a Harrison Township Republican who voted against the Senate plan. “I think what we need to do is get out of that business down in Detroit.”

Brandenburg said the Legislature should pay off the school district’s debts accumulated under Lansing’s watch and give a new Detroit school board “a rope.”

“You can either run with it or you hang yourselves with it,” Brandenburg said earlier this week. “I think it’s very, very obvious that the state being involved has to end.”

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood