Column: Detroit schools district, choice can coexist


One year ago today, a bill was signed into law that gave Detroit Public Schools a fresh start. Here’s what we know so far: The fresh start is working.

The core of this legislation was splitting the district in two — an “old” district to hold and pay off debt, and a “new” debt-free district to educate kids. Control of the new district was returned to a locally elected school board. By all accounts, this transition has occurred smoothly.

The school board engaged in a thoughtful process to hire a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with a good reputation. I’m confident that he will be an effective leader for Detroit and a good steward of public funds. The real test of his abilities is about to come, as we await the results he gets for kids in the upcoming school year. We all should have great hope for his ability to help kids achieve.

The Education Achievement Authority has been dissolved, ending its takeover of 15 Detroit schools. The city is, again, in charge of its own educational future.

The fresh start has allowed the new district to live within its means. Unsaddled from burdensome debt, it ended the last fiscal year with $75.7 million in reserves, according to its most recent budget documents, and is projected to have a $4.3 million surplus this year. Tens of millions of reserves in the bank is a refreshing change for taxpayers from just a short year ago. This good fiscal stewardship is a trend that the district must keep up.

Most importantly, the last year has demonstrated that the district and choice can coexist.

I was proud that House Republicans stood up and said “no” to the proposed Detroit Education Commission. This commission would have limited new options for parents and traded charter schools’ site-based management for centralized control under a politically appointed board.

When Detroit parents were overwhelmingly demanding more choice for their children’s educations, it would have been morally wrong to take it away from them.

A year later, we also know that Detroit simply isn’t the “wild west” that the defenders of the status quo say that it is. Just four new charter schools are opening in the city or nearby, with some in the works for years, while five are closing.

In fact, the state’s two leading authorizers — Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University — are working in good faith with the city’s leading citizens on how to coordinate to benefit kids. It is commendable that they have come together voluntarily to find a local solution, rather than waiting for Lansing to impose one on them.

Though it is too soon to judge the impact of other important pieces of this legislation, what we can see shows that it is working. It’s proof that giving back local control can work, that districts and charter schools can coexist for the benefit of parents, and that when we work together in communities, we come up with better solutions than Lansing does. I am hopeful that Detroit can keep up this positive momentum for kids for years to come.

Kevin Cotter was the speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives from 2015 to 2016.