Editorial: Detroit school plan can't limit choice

The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder is preparing to undertake the next dirty job on his list: Turning around the chronically under-performing and financially spiraling Detroit Public Schools. As he offers his plan in coming weeks, Snyder should not place preserving the state's largest school district above the education choice culture that's developed in Detroit.

The governor has been waiting on the recommendations of the Detroit Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a diverse group of 36 community leaders and stakeholders led by the Skillman Foundation. He knows he needs community support.

The coalition, which formed in December, has delved into the finances of DPS, as well many of the other problems facing families in the city, such as transportation to school. Its recommendations are expected Monday afternoon.

Since the coalition doesn't have power to enact its blueprint, it will rely on buy-in from Snyder and his education team. They will in turn need at least some support from the Legislature.

The coalition is expected to make fairly broad recommendations, which will focus on addressing the entrenched DPS debt and also improving the quality of all schools in the city.

Regarding the debt, it's anticipated the coalition will suggest separating DPS' $170 million deficit and other legacy obligations from its current operating framework by forging two "companies." Ideally, the old organization would be solely dedicated to paying off the debt, while the new one can focus on educating students.

For guidance of what the group has in mind, look to what the state did in Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, where emergency managers effectively converted the districts to charter school systems, leaving the debt behind with the old districts.

Chartering all of DPS would be politically difficult and not likely to be on the coalition's list. But other means of separating the debt will be.

To improve school options, the coalition will likely recommend a Detroit education commission to oversee all public schools in the city: DPS, charter schools and the 15 Education Achievement Authority schools. The commission would have broad authority to open and close schools, and it would serve as the main oversight of the portfolio of school operators in the city.

This is an interesting idea, and similar to a growing number of urban school models around the country. But its success also hinges directly on who would comprise the commission, and what will be done to protect against special interests influencing the decision-making. Specifically, he must safeguard charter schools from their enemies in the school unions and Democratic Party.

Snyder hasn't participated actively in the coalition's meetings, but he has been briefed on its plans. Sources close to the governor say he's open to a significant portion of what the group will recommend.

And he has already begun putting together a framework that could help his work in Detroit. For instance, earlier this month, he took control of the state's school reform office through an executive order.

Snyder says he wants to start acting on his Detroit school plans within weeks of the coalition's recommendations, so expect him to give the Legislature his to-do list by the middle of April. He'll need the support of lawmakers for at least some of the final agenda, but just months after the end of Detroit's bankruptcy, it could be a tough sell to put together another special package for the city.

Detroit schools must undergo a major overhaul. The changes should strive to increase strong schools within an education choice environment.