Jacques: Get ready for a new schools vision in Detroit

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Think of it as a one-two punch. Now that the state has tackled the city of Detroit’s finances, it’s turning to the next glaring problem on the list: Detroit schools.

Some key members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s education team offered a glimpse this week of what’s coming for city schools. While the governor has made it clear that Detroit schools are a focus, he hasn’t said much about what solutions are in the mix.

Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana schools chief who helped turnaround New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, and John Walsh, Snyder’s new director of strategy, sat down with The Detroit News to share what’s in the works.

First step: Defining the problem.

“What I’ve been doing is asking people to share their view of what the problem is,” says Pastorek, who is advising the governor and has spent several days a week in Michigan since last summer. “One of the most important things when dealing with a public policy issue is to understand what the real problem is.”

There is no question the city’s future is inextricably tied to the health of its schools. And Detroit Public Schools has struggled for years to erase its deficit and improve the academic performance of its students. To little avail.

That’s why Snyder and his team are directing much of their attention to the Detroit schools landscape, which now encompasses a wide range of charter and traditional public schools, as well as the Education Achievement Authority. But they aren’t just looking for a Detroit solution; they are also striving to create a model that could work for struggling districts around the state.

The governor has said he wants recommendations by the end of March, so there isn’t a lot of time. And the to-do list is still long.

But some ideas are coalescing. The plan is to tackle the financial obstacles, along with how best to govern Detroit schools.

“We want to be very mindful of local control,” Walsh says. “We also have a constitutional obligation as a state government to provide education to all of our students regardless of whether they are rural or urban.”

One of the leading concepts is a portfolio model for schools. It’s one the Center for Reinventing Public Education—a research group associated with the University of Washington—has put together. And more than 40 cities are working to implement aspects of that model, including Cleveland, New York, Chicago and New Orleans.

The idea is to give families the freedom to attend schools in their neighborhood or one in another part of the city. It is also a principal-focused approach that offers individual schools significant independence. In this model, city and district leaders push the expansion of successful schools.

A big clue that this will be the approach is Pastorek’s involvement. Under his guidance, New Orleans implemented a portfolio model by chartering the vast majority of city schools.

“He has experience personally with a very successful model,” Walsh says, adding the portfolio model is used primarily in places that have “financial distress and very poor academic performance.”

That makes Detroit an obvious candidate.

Snyder admits the emergency manager system hasn’t worked for DPS (the fourth EM just started work last month). He is also adamant that the community play a bigger part in forming new solutions. So he’s paying close attention to the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. The coalition of more than 30 Detroit stakeholders, led in part by the Skillman Foundation, formed in December and is meeting regularly.

Pastorek is working as Snyder’s liaison with the coalition. He’s optimistic about what he’s hearing. Walsh and Pastorek want the coalition to be on board, but it’s clear they favor the portfolio model.

They avoided saying what kind of governance structure should accompany the portfolio system, as that varies in the cities that use it. But be sure of one thing: It won’t be the current elected DPS school board. And the state is going to want to separate the district from its debt is some fashion, meaning DPS would cease to exist in its current form.

“The bottom line is we want to have a school system in Detroit that can deliver a high quality education experience,” Walsh says.

Surely that’s something everyone can agree on.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.