Engler: ‘Morally wrong’ to limit Detroit charter schools

Richard Burr, and Chad Livengood

Former Gov. John Engler is backing Michigan lawmakers who are rejecting a proposed Detroit Education Commission that could regulate the growth of competing city charter schools he helped create two decades ago.

In an exclusive Thursday interview with The Detroit News, Engler opposed a plan championed by Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate Republicans and Mayor Mike Duggan to create a commission with the power to block some charter school operators from opening additional schools in Detroit.

The state House late Thursday approved a six-bill, $617 million rescue of Detroit Public Schools without the commission, an omission that doesn’t appear to be hurting its chances of Michigan Senate approval as early as this week. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, views it as “a realistic compromise” between prior Senate and House plans, spokeswoman Amber McCann said.

Engler, who marshaled through the mid-1990s laws that created charter schools and a state-centered financing of public schools, said the rapid decline of the Detroit school system since he left office in 2003 is evidence that the city’s parents are seeking schools with better educational achievement than DPS.

“People have chosen to leave, they weren’t forced to leave. So it’s to the great credit of the House of Representatives that they politely turned down the idea of some commission,” said Engler, who is now president of the Business Roundtable, a national advocacy group representating corporate chief executives.

Engler endorsed the House’s plan that would not constrain charter school growth as the lower chamber was preparing for the late Thursday night vote.

The former three-term Republican governor called any constraints on charter schools “morally wrong.”

“This is a school system where the principals see nothing wrong with stealing from the district, and leadership wants to eliminate the competition in order to force children into schools where they won’t be educated,” said Engler, referring to 13 current and former DPS administrators who are facing jail time for their role in a $2.7 million bribery and kickback scheme.

The 46,000-student school district has lost more than 100,000 students during the past 10 years.

“In my mind, it’s inevitable the rest of them will also leave,” Engler said. “Because you cannot morally justify putting your child in a school where 19 of 20 will not be able to read proficiently.”

Engler said if he were still in office, he would move to eliminate the school district’s administration and convert the district into a network of independently operated neighborhood schools.

“The central office of Detroit Public Schools should be closed,” Engler said. “It’s too expensive, too ineffective and too corrupt.”

Engler, who now lives in Virginia, said he has been following the months-long Detroit school district debate for months.

In 1999, then-Gov. Engler said he worried about cronyism and the deterioration of education in Detroit and engineered legislation that grabbed power from the district’s elected school board. The state created a seven-member school reform board with six members appointed by then-Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer who would pick and monitor a powerful chief executive to run the district.

The seventh reform board member represented the state and could veto the board’s CEO choice. The governor’s Detroit board member vetoed the first CEO choice, a Pittsburgh superintendent. The reform board settled on its second choice, Colorado Springs, Colo. Superintendent Kenneth Burnley, who ran the Detroit Public Schools through the end of 2005.

Detroiters voted in November 2005 to dissolve the reform board at the end of 2005, as the state law allowed. The elected school board resumed power in 2006 and oversaw the Detroit district until 2009, when declining finances and mounting debt prompted Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm to send in the first of several emergency financial managers.

Engler argues there still hasn’t been enough focus on improving educational achievement in one of the nation’s worst-performing school systems.

“The crisis in education in Detroit demands everyone’s attention,” he told The Detroit News. “And most of the conversation has been about solutions about what might be good for adults who might be employed by the system. Much too little about what would be good for the kids who need the education if they’re going to compete for jobs in this century.”