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INGRID JACQUES

Jacques: Duggan revives one Detroit school panel bid

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

A year after he was rebuffed by the Legislature, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is working to revive his idea for fixing the city’s broken education system. The mayor is going back to lawmakers asking for a Detroit education commission to coordinate all city schools, both charter and traditional.

Duggan says he’s received positive signals that lawmakers will take up a new proposal this fall, after they’ve worked through the two other priorities on the city’s agenda — auto insurance and tax collection.

In an interview with The Detroit News Wednesday, Duggan expressed his frustration that education in the city will not improve without a traffic cop to ensure every student has access to a quality school, close to home.

“Choice in the city is terrible,” he says. “It comes right back to the DEC. The whole point of the DEC was to develop quality schools, both DPS and charter. Until we get a DEC, you are going to see this cycle continue. Every morning 30,000 Detroit kids get up and go to school in the suburbs.”

Duggan lobbied fiercely last year for the education commission, which he says would have offered a framework to encourage growth of quality schools, while forcing out the failing ones. He sees it as a tool that would drive active development of more seats in quality schools.

Gov. Rick Snyder supported the measure, as did many Democratic and Republican lawmakers and the city’s business community. Snyder backed a commission starting in 2015, although it morphed into something quite different by the final legislation. It was envisioned as a seven-member board that could oversee school openings and location, as well as provide criteria used to close schools.

“There are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who regret that the DEC didn’t pass,” says Duggan, who has spoken to a range of stakeholders, including some “prominent Republicans.”

“A lot of legislators have told me they made a mistake in voting that bill down.”

But charter and school choice advocates prevailed, with significant funding from the DeVos-family supported Great Lakes Education Project. Opponents raised concerns about one commission appointed by the mayor with that much control over how schools would open and operate. Legislative leaders left the DEC out of the bailout legislation to garner the final support they needed.

“One of the biggest obstacles has moved to Washington,” Duggan says, referring to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Michigan Legislature passed a $617 million bailout for Detroit schools last June, creating a new debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. The legislation also set the stage for a return to a locally elected school board. That board recently hired a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, who started his work in Detroit last week.

Even though Duggan is pleased with those developments and wishes Vitti well, he believes school success ultimately depends on an oversight commission. He says he’s continuing talks with new legislative leaders in the House, in addition to Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Minority Leader Jim Ananich. He says they are open to these discussions, but want to address the other priorities first.

“We are going to go in the order that the Legislature is willing to deal with things,” says Duggan.

But some leading Republicans, including the governor and House Speaker Tom Leonard, say the DEC won’t gain traction.

“I don’t think it’s likely,” Snyder says.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, who heads the education reform committee, opposed the concept last session and still does.

“I don’t think it’s any better having it been aged for 365 days,” he says. “No, I think it’s still a bad idea and one that I would continue to oppose. Look, there’s no doubt that they need to downsize Detroit’s portfolio, but not on the backs of charter schools.”

After bungled efforts earlier this year by the state’s School Reform Office to close 25 of the worst-performing Detroit schools, Duggan says lawmakers, even some earlier opponents of the DEC, are seeing just how difficult it is to handle failing schools without a broader framework in place. When parents were told their neighborhood schools would close, without another clear, quality alternative, the closure plans caused an uproar and were quickly tossed in lieu of a partnership with the Michigan Education Department.

“I think this crystallized for a lot of people what I’d been saying about the DEC,” says Duggan. “Somebody has to be actively creating the quality schools if you are going to shut down the non-performing ones. There have to be alternatives first.”

Duggan is still convinced having a DEC in place would help facilitate quality schools for families. He wants to be involved in that kind of system, but he says he doesn’t want to get more entrenched.

“I don’t want to run the schools,” he says. “The DEC is the right solution.”

Staff Writer Michael Gerstein contributed.