Duggan clashes with charter school lobby on DPS rescue

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Mayor Mike Duggan is clashing with Michigan’s charter school lobby in a political fight over creating a citywide commission governing the placement and performance of Detroit’s public schools.


Duggan held a two-hour meeting Thursday night at the Manoogian Mansion with 30 charter school operators and Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes in an effort to convince skeptics to embrace a proposed Detroit Education Commission.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, sent charter school operators a letter Friday saying Duggan used “bare-knuckles, big-city politics” in a mayoral shakedown to win support.

Duggan was looking for charter school operators to stand with him at a news conference planned for Tuesday morning at the Northwest Activity Center, where the mayor is expected to make a final push for the commission before the Legislature decides its fate.

Quisenberry’s letter claimed Duggan warned those in attendance they would be “irrelevant” if they didn’t attend his news conference.

The letter angered some city charter school advocates who said Duggan’s message was twisted out of context by MAPSA, the main lobbying arm for the school choice movement.

“What I remember him saying is the legislation is moving real fast and, if you don’t take a position next week, you’re going to be irrelevant because the legislation is going to pass you by,” said Mark Lezotte, an attorney and board president of the Detroit Leadership Academy.

The head of one nonprofit charter school management company said Duggan’s presentation was “collegial and collaborative.”

“There wasn’t any strong-arm tactics. It was a very pleasant conversation,” said Renee Burgess, president of Equity Education, which operates three Detroit charter schools with 1,300 students. “Mayor Duggan said, ‘If you chose not to support it, I understand. There are no hard feelings.’ ”

In an interview Friday, Duggan characterized the meeting as a positive step toward building political support in the Legislature for creation of the commission. “I believe quality charters should be enthusiastic about the DEC because they will expand and grow,” Duggan told The Detroit News. “I think poor charters should fight the DEC because we’re going to put accountability in place.”

The creation of a commission with the power to close poor-performing schools run by Detroit Public Schools and independent charter operators is at the center of a GOP Senate-approved $700 million plan to rescue DPS from financial collapse.

But the Republican-controlled House passed a $500 million bailout for DPS earlier this month without a commission empowered to restructure Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.

Duggan said there could be big lobbying push Tuesday in Lansing to break a stalemate in the Republican-controlled Legislature over whether to include the Detroit Education Commission as part of a plan to pay off $467 million in the Detroit school district’s debt.

“So far, legislators have been told this is an anti-charter initiative and charters are against it,” the Democratic mayor said. “It would mean a lot to legislators if they heard from charter operators in Detroit who said, ‘We think this is a good thing; it’s important for our children.’ ”

Duggan said he has met with 103 of the House’s 109 members as part of his lobbying effort.

“A large number of House members, Republican and Democratic, believe there is logic to what I’m saying — that it’s absolutely crazy that some neighborhoods have several schools and some neighborhoods have no schools at all and there has to be some rationality.”

Under the Senate’s bill, the Detroit Education Commission could take proposals from both DPS and charter school operators to run, for example, a high school in northeast Detroit where there is a shortage of high schools, Duggan said.

“A big part of what the DEC is intended to do is make sure every strong neighborhood has a school,” the mayor said.

In Detroit, about 46,000 students attend DPS schools, 50,000 kids go to charter schools and another 27,000 children attend public schools in neighboring cities.

The Senate plan would create a citywide report card system for all DPS and charter schools that could be used to close failing schools after three consecutive years of receiving a “D” or “F” grade. The DEC, whose members would be chosen by the mayor, would be empowered to close persistently failing schools.

“The people who are opposing us believe there should be no regulation at all and that we should have the kind of system we have today with a dozen different authorizers, and schools — traditional public or charter — rarely ever being shut down for academic performance,” Duggan said.

Without naming names, Duggan said lobbying interests in Lansing had spread “a lot of false information” about the purpose of the commission in an effort to derail it. “People in Lansing are trying to pit charters against DPS and make this adversarial,” Duggan said.

Representatives with MAPSA and the Great Lakes Education Project said Friday charter school operators who oppose Duggan’s commission are afraid to speak for fear of getting a city building inspector at their school.

“He’s bullying and intimidating them into not opposing the DEC, and they are justifiably fearful,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project.