Poll: Slight majority backs Detroit school commission

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Communications and Media Arts School students head toward their next class at the Detroit school. A narrow majority of Michigan voters supports creating a commission in Detroit with the power to control how many charter schools can operate in the city, a new statewide poll shows.

Lansing — A narrow majority of Michigan voters supports creating a commission in Detroit with the power to control how many charter schools can operate in the city, a new statewide poll shows.

About 43 percent of 600 likely general election voters said they favor a plan being hotly debated in the state Legislature that would create a central governing board to organize where public schools operate in Detroit. It has been connected to a package of legislation to help eliminate Detroit Public Schools’ debt and avoid a bankruptcy.

The survey, released exclusively to The Detroit News and WDIV-TV, found about 38 percent oppose the plan. About 47 percent of voters who identify as strong Republicans also rejected the idea.

Political divisions in Lansing over the future of Detroit’s school system mirror the attitudes of a cross-section of voters, pollster Richard Czuba said.

“I think what these numbers show is exactly what we’re seeing play out in the Legislature,” said Czuba, chief executive of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group Inc. polling firm.

Debate at the Capitol over containing charter school growth in Detroit is expected to come to a head this week as GOP legislative leaders seek to hammer out a deal to bail out the debt-ridden city school district.

The Republican-controlled Senate and House have been at odds for weeks over the commission. Charter school advocates have lobbied heavily against it, contending the panel would be used to shield Detroit Public Schools from additional competition.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and House Speaker Kevin Cotter are expected to meet Tuesday to discuss the overhaul of Detroit schools, which will be a featured topic this week at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island.

“The majority leader knows that the one thing most people agree on is that the Legislature needs to act for the 45,000 students in Detroit who rely upon DPS,” Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann said Monday. “The cost of doing nothing is too great and would have a negative impact on students across the state.”

Education lobbyist Gary Naeyaert, an ardent opponent of the Detroit Education Commission, said the poll’s narrow plurality is reflective of the divided Republican-controlled Legislature.

“I think it shows you that this is not a slam-dunk issue,” said Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter organization. “And there are reasonable people on both sides of the DEC debate who see it differently.”

Under the Senate plan, a new citywide Detroit Education Commission would be empowered to slow the growth of charter schools in the city in an effort to better regulate where schools are located. Some pockets of the city have too few public school options, while others have clusters of schools, especially along Woodward Avenue.

The commission would be able to take proposals from DPS and charter school operators creating new schools in underserved areas of Detroit.

“I think you have to have some coordination,” said Mark Lezotte, board president of the Detroit Leadership Academy, a K-8 charter school on the city’s west side. “You gotta put kids where kids and families are, not just where a charter operator thinks they can make a buck.”

The commission also is an attempt to stabilize the enrollment of Michigan’s largest school district and thus its finances. DPS emergency manager Steven Rhodes has said the district’s future hinges on limiting the number of competing charter schools that receive state funding.

“It will be more challenging for DPS to succeed without some kind of control over the opening of new charter schools or other kinds of educational opportunities,” Rhodes said May 13 on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record” television show.

Likely voters surveyed for the poll got an explanation of the two complex and competing proposals in the Senate and House. The proposals aim to pay off $467 million in DPS debt that was largely racked up by state-appointed emergency managers.

About 31 percent said they favor the Senate’s plan to assume the DPS debt and give a new debt-free school district an extra $200 million to repair school buildings and improve education programs.

The poll found about 19 percent of likely voters favor the House plan to pay off the $467 million in debt and provide the new district with $33 million for transition costs.

Another 39 percent don’t support either plan, according to the poll.

“$200 million sounds better than $33 million, so it doesn’t surprise me that the public supports the Senate plan,” Naeyaert said.

Opposition to the DPS rescue plan was most prevalent in Republican-heavy west Michigan, where 53 percent of likely voters said they don’t support either legislative plan, Czuba said.

“These numbers bear a broader picture that west Michigan Republicans aren’t necessarily in sync with the rest of the state — both in terms of handling the debt question and the education commission,” he said.

But when support for the two plans is combined, 49 percent of voters favor some legislative solution for Detroit’s public education landscape, Czuba said.

“The voters are supportive of a legislative plan, it’s just now a matter of sorting out those details,” he said. “Find a compromise — that dirty word.”

The telephone operator poll was conducted May 24-26 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood