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Snyder aims to revamp Detroit schools

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A recommendation this week by education reformers for a centralized system where Detroit parents would enroll their children in school is seen as the first step toward a broader debate about how to reshape public school management within the city.

Detroit has a decentralized system of 97 schools operated by Detroit Public Schools along with 64 charter schools run by a dozen different authorizers throughout the state and 15 former DPS schools under the control of the Education Achievement Authority.

Gov. Rick Snyder's administration has been exploring options for the 47,238-student district, which remains buried under a $127 million operating deficit. The task has taken on urgency since an 18-month term for DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin is nearing its completion in January.

Snyder has said he intends to get Mayor Mike Duggan, City Council members and other community leaders involved in talks about how to "improve all schools in Detroit" as the city's municipal bankruptcy nears its end.

"Let's look at a system of saying, how do we get better results out of the schools?" Snyder said in a Nov. 5 interview with The Detroit News, the day after he won a second term. "I'm very open to engaging in a broader discussion."

Snyder's office is getting advice on what to do next from Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana schools chief who helped turn around New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina by creating two charter schools for every district-operated school. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, which was influential in creation of the EAA, is paying Pastorek to consult with the governor's office.

The EAA was created to turn around the academic performance of students in the state's lowest achieving schools. It operates nine elementary and middle schools, and six high schools in Detroit.

Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, who has been involved in meetings with Pastorek, said a "super agency" concept is envisioned, 20 years after the former DPS "monopoly" began to break up because of the school choice and charter school laws he helped write for former Gov. John Engler.

"Now the pendulum is swinging back to a much more control and command of Detroit schools," McLellan said.

No recommendations to gov

Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, said Pastorek remains in an "information-gathering" stage and that he's made no recommendations to the governor on how to proceed in Detroit or other urban schools.

"He's not tasked to come up with a recommendation per se," Murray said Thursday. "He's lending a voice, an expertise to a process."

Pastorek has met with school leaders across the state who work with charter schools and traditional urban school districts and is studying the layers of educational entities.

"He's been really good about asking good questions ... and not revealing what he's thinking," said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents charter schools.

The struggles at Detroit Public Schools are coupled with a rocky first two years of the EAA and a belief among some charter school operators that there needs to be better coordination of enrollment, transportation and placement of school buildings within the city's 138-square-mile footprint.

"Right now, we have multiple players placing schools potentially where there are not children," said Tim Wood, head of the charter school office at Grand Valley State University that has 14 authorized schools in Detroit. "That type of direction in Detroit would be most helpful."

Mindful of the political minefield associated with school reform in Detroit, charter school leaders are not publicly promoting a specific plan at this point.

"There's certainly coordination issues" in Detroit that need to be resolved, Quisenberry said. "(But) what it looks like and what we mean by that is something we need to get busy talking about."

John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, said a "more sane approach" is needed for approving where schools operate within the city. One idea floating around education circles is to replicate Michigan's "certificate of need" system for building hospitals so Detroit isn't flooded with excess public school options, Austin said.

Hospitals apply to a state board to get approval to build a hospital, add beds at an existing facility or invest in certain health technologies.

"Quality charters are being hurt by the kind of random proliferation of schools, including mediocre and bad charters," Austin said. "Nobody can attract in Detroit enough students because of this chaotic landscape."

Report urges centralization

A report released this week and commissioned by Excellent Schools Detroit — a nonprofit that publishes an academic score card for all Detroit schools — urges the creation of a uniform guide and application for enrolling in any type of public school in Detroit and "creation of a central administrative body to serve as the point of accountability to families in distributing, collecting and processing applications."

The report's author recommended Duggan take the lead because he holds "the most publicly accountable and neutral office, and if he chooses to become more active in education, his office would be ideal."

In August, Excellent Schools Detroit floated another proposal to hand over control of planning, transportation and enrollment to Duggan's office.

Duggan has said he's not interested in running the city's schools while tackling a long-term restructuring plan for City Hall that's laid out in Detroit's 10-year bankruptcy debt-cutting plan.

But the mayor hasn't ruled out having some involvement in the city's public education.

"Could there be a central authorizing role, including common enrollment? Those are things we are going to look at over the next year," Duggan said Wednesday.

Snyder looking at options

Pastorek's work in Detroit comes as Snyder has to decide whether to appoint another emergency manager for DPS after nearly six years of state control.

"What the governor has said is it's time to look at some new options as Jack Martin's tenure comes to end," Murray said.

In mid-January, the elected Detroit Board of Education is expected vote to remove Martin from office as allowed under the emergency manager law.

But the governor signaled recently he does not intend to hand back control to the school board.

"The track record there is not good," Snyder told The News' editorial board.

"If you did some more polling, I don't think the degree of confidence in that model is very high within the city of Detroit."

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.