Jacques: Keep focus on Detroit kids, not politics

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

When the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren came out with its first report in 2015, the focus was highly political. That was understandable, given the dire state of Detroit Public Schools and a deep desire within the community to take back ownership of their public schools.

Two years ago, the coalition needed the Legislature’s help to put its recommendations in place, and the group of Detroit stakeholders got much of their wish list accomplished, including the $617 million taxpayer bailout of DPS and the creation of a brand new debt-free community district. Lawmakers also agreed to a return to a locally elected school board.

The coalition released its second report Wednesday, and this time its focus is almost entirely on coming together as a community for the city’s kids, regardless of whether they are in DPSCD or one of the many charter schools in Detroit.

That’s an encouraging sign and will hopefully lead to actual collaboration between traditional public school and charter advocates.

The coalition is still largely led by the same co-chairs, who include Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation, and John Rakolta, CEO of Walbridge. New to the top leadership is Mark Reuss, an executive vice president at GM.

Steering committee members also include some new faces, such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of DPSCD, and John Kennedy, CEO of Autocam Medical and chair of the Grand Valley State University board. Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, also joined in the effort.

One of the noteworthy pieces that’s missing from this new report is the Detroit Education Commission the coalition fought so hard for as part of the DPS bailout legislation. The group had called for a commission largely controlled by Mayor Mike Duggan to oversee all Detroit schools, including charters.

Charter leaders hated the idea, believing the added layer of bureaucracy would only work against their schools to favor the Detroit district, and the DEC got left out of the final legislation. Earlier this year, Duggan said he was interested in reviving the commission concept and was working with lawmakers. But those efforts don’t seem to be going anywhere.

This time, the coalition is proposing to create a voluntary “charter-district compact,” working in conjunction with the mayor that “reviews, discusses, and presents plans for better coordination and transparency about school openings and school closings.”

There’s no question better communication is necessary to ensure Detroit’s children have access to a good school in their neighborhood. This new approach is refreshing and is less about pointing fingers and blame and more about what school leaders can do to improve the lives of families.

Charter leaders are cautiously optimistic, as Vitti hasn’t been very interested in working with them. But having this high-powered group encouraging collaboration should definitely help.

Other recommendations: tackling absenteeism; attracting back the 25,000 Detroit students who attend schools outside the city; focusing on career education and third-grade reading; ensuring Detroit is attracting the best teachers; and highlighting the challenges of Detroit’s high rate of special ed students.

This report deserves credit for its focus on Detroit’s kids. The challenge now will be for everyone involved to put aside political fights and make this new wish list a reality.