Let DPS families choose schools

Greg Harris

The plans proposed to date to address Detroit’s public school crisis are too expensive and insufficient to the task of eliminating debt while elevating the education prospects of the city’s 46,000 public school kids. For a city that has seen the Detroit Three become vital again through re-invention, it’s sad that Motor City perseverance has yet to pervade the education sector.

Still, it’s possible to immediately improve the academic fates of Detroit schoolchildren while paying off Detroit Public Schools’ legacy without a bailout, and to essentially give every child a check to attend a school of choice.

While a new education system of schools driven by parental choice may upset the educational powers that be, it would otherwise reflect the will of the people. When it comes to education, the public “will” has been expressed by a majority of Detroit parents who have already voted with their feet by opting out of DPS for charters or private schools, and the eight in 10 Detroit parents who want more choice.

In the spirit of re-invention, the aim should be to get DPS’ $515 million in legacy debt off the backs of kids while reinventing education in Detroit as a system of independent schools where money follows the child to the school their families choose.

Under a “new district”— such as Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed Detroit Community School District — the approximately $7,550 state foundation formula could be augmented by DPS’s current average $1,530 federal Title I allocation. Hypothetically, this could lead to a self-funded (re: no bailout) CSD, with an average per pupil for low-income Detroit schoolchildren of around $9000.

Under this scenario, state and federal dollars would fund Detroit school kids, while local levy dollars (per Snyder’s plan) would be channeled to the “old district” (DPS) to pay off legacy debt, after which DPS would be dissolved.

The Michigan Department of Education document charts Title I expenditures for all schools in the state. For Detroit city schools (line 82010), 66,714 impoverished kids are allocated about $102 million in Title I dollars, which amount to about $1,530 per child.

Unfortunately, around $3,000 of today’s $7,500 in state aid already goes to debt, leaving a per pupil balance of around $6,000 ($4,500 in net state aid plus approximately $1,500 in federal aid).

This is why governance reform is sorely needed — reform that replaces an unwieldy central office with a self-funded governing board that can preside over an all-charter district. The savings that would come via replacing DPS’s $90 million central office would yield up to $2,000 more per child, getting closer to the average of $8,000 per pupil allocated to charter school students today — that is, net state aid of $4,500 plus $1,500 Title I plus $2,000 per pupil in central office savings. (Under a new district, all federal dollars should follow the child to the school they attend, as charter schools qualify for the same Title I eligibility requirements as district schools.)

Legislators should emulate Washington D.C.’s self-funded Public Charter School Board, which does not run schools directly but, rather, authorizes 60 operators to manage 115 schools. The D.C. board manages performance contracts with each operator, closes schools that do not meet performance standards and tries to scale schools that succeed. It does not manage where students must attend school; parents are free to choose to enroll their children in any school. Importantly, the D.C. Charter School Board is a good model for a lean central office, as it is funded from a 1 percent fee it charges to the charters that participate in the system.

As Michigan legislators and the governor grapple with a new path forward for Detroit education, they should strongly consider a path forward that would retire debt without a bailout while developing a new governance model that empowers parents.

Greg Harris was the founding executive director of Excellent Schools Detroit in 2011. He has worked in education as a teacher, and in policy and advocacy.