Jacques: Detroit's future tied to schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

As Detroit closes its bankruptcy chapter, a major challenge remains: making Detroit attractive to families. A key part to that equation will be ensuring Detroit's schools are preparing children for future success.

Strong K-12 schools may not be the first thing people associate with avoiding another financial collapse. But education and the health of the city are intertwined.

"The pathway out of poverty in a capitalist economy is education and jobs," says Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, an education advocacy group, and a member of the State Board of Education. "Education is critical for kids."

It's also critical for Detroit's bottom line. Ken Whipple, the vice chair of the Detroit Financial Advisory Board, and Sandra Pierce, the chair, both acknowledge that K-12 education in the city must get better in a hurry. For too long Detroit's schools have contributed to the cycle of poverty that plagues many families.

In addition, schools will play a determining factor in the decision of middle-class families to stay or come to Detroit, they say. Without a good system of schools, the "city cannot survive and thrive," Pierce says.

Whipple suggests much more involvement from the governor and the mayor. "Make Mike Duggan the captain of this project," he says.

The addition of many charter schools in Detroit is giving families options, but more leadership is needed to make school choice work — especially when it comes to transportation and enrollment. Whether the mayor wants to take on this task is unclear, but he should at least consider it given the integral role schools could play in stabilizing and growing Detroit's population.

A few months ago, Excellent Schools Detroit started this conversation about how to bring more continuity to school oversight. Varner is an advocate of having a portfolio manager that would provide accountability and coordination of services for all Detroit public schools, including charter schools and schools within the Education Achievement Authority.

Other Detroit observers agree. "We need to improve our standards and be more consistent across all demographic lines with resources and outcomes in education," says Clark Hill attorney Reginald Turner, a former member of the State Board of Education.

Varner believes the mayor's office would be the best place to house this office, but he's open to alternatives. Either way, this is a discussion that must start now among Gov. Rick Snyder, Duggan and the community.

The day after his re-election Snyder signaled tackling Detroit schools is one of his top priorities. And he aims to have these kinds of talks in the city. With Detroit Public Schools' Emergency Manager Jack Martin leaving his post in January, Snyder is clearly concerned about turning DPS back to the school board.

The governor's team has also been working with education reform powerhouses like former Louisiana superintendent of education Paul Pastorek, who led the successful effort to charter most schools in New Orleans.

These Detroit conversations can't wait, given the relationship between schools and the city's health.

"If we want Detroit to finish what we started, and make the economy strong, we have to get the education community fixed," Varner says.