New path forward to give families quality schools

Lindsay Huddleston

Have you ever worked on a team, whether in your office or at school, where you never knew who was responsible for what? Multiple people were in charge of the same task, but no one took responsibility for it. Questions were passed from one person to the next but answers never came. In a situation like that, it’s hard to know if anyone is doing a good job.

Now, take that chaotic situation, multiply it by 113,000 students in 205 schools and you have the education landscape in Detroit. As it stands, 14 different entities have the power to open and close schools in Detroit. There is no coordination between these groups and no accountability to ensure they are truly preparing Detroit students for success in college and career.

If we want to ensure all children in Detroit have access to high-quality schools, we need to scrap the patchwork of a system and implement a single, performance-based accountability system for all city schools under the authority of one body, the Detroit Education Commission.

We already know Detroit schools are in need of serious reform. With crippling debt as an extra roadblock, students in the city have fallen behind the rest of the country and most are unable to read at grade level. This is not the same Detroit Public Schools I graduated from more than 20 years ago. But right now, any improvements we add will be bounced around the current jumbled system, doomed for failure yet again.

The DEC can change that, if done right. While many reforms on the table focus on Detroit’s debt, the DEC is the only proposed solution to address student achievement and empower parents with better access to school choices. But it will only succeed if it’s part of a single, performance-based accountability system that holds all schools to high standards — traditional public schools and public charter schools — and improves access to these school choices.

Already some special interests are fighting to exclude charter schools from the DEC because they say it will be used to close them. In fact, the DEC will only close schools — charter and traditional public — that fail to meet the performance standards required. Charter schools will hold onto their autonomy, but the days of “authorizer shopping” and failing charters using loopholes to stay open will be over. We shouldn’t tolerate academic failure in any schools that receive taxpayer dollars.

As the single accountability system raises the quality of all city schools, the DEC would give parents increased access to these schools through streamlined enrollment and transportation systems, and a clear process for managing and maintaining school facilities. This would enable true choice in Detroit.

For school leaders, the DEC will allow them to focus on what matters most: teaching kids. Issues related to enrollment and transportation will no longer distract administrators from the classroom. While the DEC will streamline the process for giving families access to schools, it will leave crucial matters of classroom instruction up to individual schools.

The DEC will also have built-in accountability through a robust performance-based system with clear guidelines the board must follow. By having a transparent process for evaluating schools that local communities can offer their input on, we can build public trust and ensure the board has the authority to make an impact — two things our existing entities lack.

Some have lost faith in Detroit’s ability to exert its authority over failing schools, but the DEC can be different in a couple of ways. First, when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, nothing gets done, which is why the DEC must streamline efforts into a single performance-based accountability system: all of Detroit’s schools answering to one authority under clear expectations for student growth. Second, the DEC must have the power to take swift action based on clear triggers in failing schools. Accountability doesn’t work without real consequences.

If we’re willing to re-think the path forward, we can turn around Detroit’s schools. The DEC, with a single performance-based accountability system and a clear focus on ensuring access to high-quality schools, will help us get there.

Lindsay Huddleston is state director of StudentsFirst Michigan.