Who should run Detroit’s schools?


School choice, at least in the form of charter and traditional public schools, is spreading rapidly in Detroit. And while that’s a promising development for families in the city, the exponential expansion of new schools has led to some growing pains.

Now, the conversation is turning to how to make this system of choices work for everyone involved — from the schools themselves to parents and students.

Late last week, the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, which aims to ensure all schools in the city offer quality education, released a proposal outlining some potential solutions. The group suggests offering the mayor’s office much more control of all schools in Detroit — including charter schools.

If the mayor, or a chosen appointee, could coordinate services like transportation and enrollment across all schools, that would go a long way to giving families true access to the schools they want. Right now, many parents face barriers in getting their child to the best school.

This proposal goes beyond those services, however, and would offer the mayor’s office the ability to open and close schools and decide which charter school operators could open new schools in the city.

That’s great if a mayor that supports school choice is in place, but it could become bad news for charter schools if leadership changes direction.

Other cities like New York offer blueprints for Detroit to follow. Former New York City schools chief Joel Klein believes mayoral control of schools is a good option when done right. He ran city schools for eight years under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Student performance and graduation rates improved during his tenure.

The ability to open new charter schools in targeted areas, as well as close the worst public schools, were key to his efforts.

And even though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is working to undermine the charter school expansion under Bloomberg, Klein has said he’s confident most of these choices will remain, as parents have come to appreciate having better schools.

Given that more than half of Detroit students now attend charter schools, parents are quickly having to become adept at choosing schools. Detroit is behind only New Orleans in the country for the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools.

Groups like Excellent Schools Detroit strive to educate parents about schools, but CEO Dan Varner believes even more should be done to make the choice model succeed in Detroit.

“There are all sorts of problems,” Varner says of the current marketplace. “It’s really apparent.”

One of the most glaring problems is the waste of “hundreds of millions” of dollars on schools in Detroit, Varner says. The volatility of schools opening and closing, significant overcapacity and enrollment fluctuation have led to poor use of school funds — not to mention headaches for schools.

Just this week, Detroit Public Schools announced a new round of pay cuts for teachers and administrators. Still facing a $127 million deficit, the district is also calling for the closure of 24 schools or buildings over four years. And since Emergency Manager Jack Martin’s term is up in January, moving oversight to the mayor’s office is more appealing than giving control back to the DPS school board.

“This is deserving of a robust public conversation,” Varner says.

Gov. Rick Snyder and Mayor Mike Duggan have received copies of the proposal, but neither has responded yet. Moving control of schools to the mayor’s office would take policy changes at the state and city level.

Whether full mayor control is necessary or whether oversight of specific services makes more sense, this is a discussion that’s vital to Detroit’s future, and all stakeholders should get involved.