Column: How Lansing can compromise on Detroit Public Schools
Last week, the Michigan Senate approved a $715 million rescue plan for Detroit Public Schools, but the legislation faces uncertainty in the House.
The two chambers have largely disagreed over the details of long-term oversight. Any further gridlock in the legislature will likely result in DPS running out of cash on April 8 and with lawmakers failing to meet their constitutional responsibility to provide an education for DPS students.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that state oversight of DPS has been ineffective, the House’s bill is far more Draconian than the Senate’s version, calling for eight more years of state oversight. The Senate’s version, on the other hand, returns DPS to local control by the end of the year and establishes a Detroit education commission to oversee education policy in Detroit.
How did DPS arrive at the brink of bankruptcy? Enrolling 167,000 students, DPS actually had a budget surplus of $93 million before the first state takeover in 1999. By 2014 and after several iterations of state control, DPS enrollment decreased by more than 70 percent, resulting in a $232 million budget deficit. What these shocking statistics tell us is a story of ill-conceived state-level education policies that led to DPS’ financial demise over the last 20 years.
First, the policy of lifting the cap on the number charter schools in the city of Detroit coupled with the per pupil funding system caused structural financial issues in DPS. Lifting the charter school cap in Detroit also caused an excess capacity problem in Detroit where charter schools were opening and there are more seats available than there are Detroit school children to occupy them.
Second, the failed experiment with emergency financial management resulted in short-sighted decisions to borrow money, which decreased financial resources to educate DPS students.
Lastly, Gov. Rick Snyder’s first state budget in 2011 decreased education funding 20 percent, which expedited DPS’ rendezvous with bankruptcy.
To end the political deadlock between the Senate and the House, we recommend an “integrated governance” model, which is an ideal mix between local control and state oversight as a legislative compromise:
■The integrated governance model would create a shared state and city appointed financial review board similar to the one created after the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings;
■A financial review board with financial oversight until 2020 would then, in turn, allow for DPS to immediately return to an elected school board with the same powers as any other locally elected school board in Michigan; and
■Lastly, a Detroit educational commissioner (DEC) should be elected. An elected DEC would further restore local control to Detroit parents who currently do not have a voice in school matters, would not be politically shielded by a mayor or governor, and should be a professional educator and vetted by a school superintendent search firm such as the Michigan Leadership Institute before he or she can officially become a candidate for the position.
There is a need to hold all of these various educational agencies in Detroit accountable, and a need to unify what is currently a very fragmented landscape under a common educational vision for all of Detroit’s schools.
Shaun Black is a school turnaround professional with The Achievement Network. Leanne Kang is a visiting professor of social foundations in education at Grand Valley State University.