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What is the future of Detroit schools?

The Detroit News

Detroit schools are at the center of the conversation about rebuilding the city. Who should run them? Who should oversee enrollment? How could school choice work more effectively? These are complicated questions that deserve the close attention of city and state leaders and Detroit families.

There isn't a silver bullet. Rather, there are several distinct pieces that should be considered.

Following his re-election, Gov. Rick Snyder signaled interest in ramping up discussions regarding education in Detroit. His leadership will be essential.

One of the most pressing concerns is what should happen with the state's largest school district. Detroit Public Schools still struggles with a $127 million deficit and poor academic performance, even after three emergency managers. And with current EM Jack Martin's term ending in January, many are worried what the future of DPS would look like once the school board regains some control.

But DPS is only one piece in the Detroit school puzzle. More than half the students in Detroit now attend charter schools. The Education Achievement Authority, which currently runs 15 of the lowest-performing schools in the city, is also a player.

In recent months, some have suggested that Detroit needs to bring all of its schools under one central office. Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, and his team came out with that recommendation this summer. This kind of portfolio manager system offers some advantages, but also raises concerns.

A common enrollment and transportation system could help parents take better advantage of all the choices now available to them.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, is on board with figuring out a new approach to enrollment. And he says his group has been working with an organization called the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice to help design an enrollment system that works in Detroit. The institute is comprised of market design and district administrative experts, who have created successful systems in New Orleans, New York City, Boston and Denver.

So some of this work has begun.

Better coordination of charter authorizers has also been floated. Currently about a dozen different authorizers run schools in Detroit.

But Quisenberry points out that authorizers have done a decent job of regulating the market. Even with the cap on charter schools lifted, there hasn't been an explosion of new schools in Detroit, as some critics predicted. Rather, Quisenberry says only a net of seven schools have opened in the past five years.

One of the chief concerns with a central system for schools is that it would only be as strong as the political leadership behind it, and there is no long-term guarantee that Detroit's leadership would offer traditional public schools and charters a fair playing field.

Snyder's office has already sought advice from Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana schools chief who helped turnaround New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina by chartering most of the district. The Broad Foundation is funding Pastorek's Michigan work, and he is still gathering information before offering specific suggestions regarding the future of Detroit schools.

The Broad Foundation was influential in creating the controversial EAA, and in recent weeks the governor's office has reportedly been working with the Legislature once again to codify the district—initially formed as an inter-local agreement. But lawmakers burned out on education reform are unlikely to get on board. This may be a good time to put the EAA aside in lieu of more wide-reaching reforms.

Any major changes going forward in Detroit should be done thoughtfully and should help the school choice culture that has developed in the city flourish—not limit it.