Jacques: To fix Detroit schools, think vouchers

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Just in case there weren’t enough ideas already about how to improve Detroit schools, add another one to the list.

It’s one of the boldest plans so far — and because of that, it will get the most opposition from an education establishment that fights change.

Yet Rep. Tim Kelly is on to something. The Saginaw Twp. Republican, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on K-12 school aid, wants to introduce true school choice to Detroit — and the rest of Michigan.

“Detroit provides a golden opportunity,” Kelly says.

His plan has the potential to get more support from lawmakers who haven’t been eager about supporting Gov. Rick Snyder’s blueprint for revamping Detroit schools. Snyder is backing a half dozen bills that he would like introduced by the end of this month.

The heart of Kelly’s plan is a voucher system, however, and that’s not easy to execute in Michigan. He envisions offering parents more choice by giving them an “education opportunity card.”

“I really think that’s the direction we need to go,” he says.

It would require changing the state constitution, which currently has one of the most restrictive amendments, blocking any form of vouchers and tax credits.

But other states that have opened school choice to private schools — like Florida and Louisiana — are seeing good results. So it’s an option worth fighting for here.

Kelly alluded to his support of vouchers earlier this summer during a TV interview. At that time, he got a lot of attention for proposing to dissolve Detroit Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. His solution then was to give financial support to families and let them choose a school.

Kelly has fleshed out those ideas, and this week he released a 17-page report on school reform.

Back in 2011, Snyder came out with a comprehensive plan for reforming education that included an “anytime, any place” model for learning. Kelly doesn’t think the governor has followed through.

“I want to pick up the ball where he dropped it,” he says.

Kelly recognizes some value in the governor’s latest proposal for Detroit schools, such as the idea to split DPS into two districts — one which would isolate the debt, and a new district which could focus on educating kids. He also likes some of the ideas from the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which came out with a report in March.

“I want to take the best of what people are offering,” he says.

But Kelly opposes Snyder’s plan to create several new layers of state and city oversight. These new boards would oversee DPS, as well as an education czar who would have broad authority over all schools in the city, including charters.

Kelly points out that DPS has already had years of state oversight, and that hasn’t solved the district’s financial or academic woes. If anything, they keep getting worse. DPS’ deficit continues to balloon. Just this week, the district had to borrow another $121.2 million from the state to address its $238.2 million deficit. Four state-appointed emergency managers in the past six years have failed to fix the finances.

Snyder, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the coalition have all called for a bailout of DPS. But Kelly is doubtful that sending more state aid to the district would help in the long-term.

“The governor called for command and control,” Kelly says. “But what we need is more choice.”

Charter schools have flourished in Detroit, with more than half of the city’s students attending them. Private schools, on the other hand, have largely disappeared in recent decades. A voucher system could help revive these schools, including parochial schools.

The current school structure in Detroit has failed too many students for too long. So why not go bold?

“There’s a crisis in Detroit,” Kelly says. “Let’s not let it go to waste.”