Editorial: Find compromise for Detroit schools

The Detroit News

Mackinac Island –

There is no disagreement that a financial and academic crisis exists for schools in Detroit. Both the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and Gov. Rick Snyder outlined the situation and worked hard on different sets of recommendations for improving education in the city. Despite the urgency, there's little consensus on solutions.

Changing that dynamic is a critical point of discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber's policy conference this week.

Detroit Public Schools has just 47,000 students left, down from 180,000 15 years ago. More than half of the city's schoolchildren don't attend DPS schools. Academic performance is among the worst in the nation, and its debt stands at about $438 million despite years of state control.

Yet the education problem is becoming the next roads debacle in Michigan. Solutions are on the table, but political leaders aren't willing to do what's necessary to find a lasting fix.

And lawmakers who are in the midst of scrambling to find $1 billion for roads in the state budget will show even less enthusiasm for sending a huge bailout to Detroit Public Schools to erase the structural debt accumulated under emergency management.

Two co-chairs of the coalition, Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, and John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge, gave an update on the group's progress Wednesday morning at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

While Allen, Rakolta and other members of the coalition have continued making the case for Detroit schools and working behind the scenes lobbying lawmakers and business leaders, not much has visibly happened since the coalition released its report two months ago.

Snyder came out with his extensive list of recommendations at the end of April, and his team is also trying to encourage the Legislature to embrace his outline for Detroit schools.

"I wanted to get a plan out there I thought was a reasonable, rational answer, and I figured I'd get strong feedback from Detroit and strong feedback from out-state people," Snyder says. "I'm equal opportunity as far as people giving me feedback on this."

But the governor and the coalition don't seem any closer to ironing out their differences, which are still many, even though Allen and Snyder maintain their respective plans aren't that far apart.

The two blueprints agree the state should take responsibility for much of DPS' debt. And they also both maintain there should be more oversight over how all public schools — both traditional and charter — are managed.

Where they differ greatly is on how governance will work. The coalition wants debt relief and a full return to local control and the elected school board.

Snyder believes if the state is on the hook for that much money, it requires significant state oversight years into the future. Snyder's plan also relies on much involvement from Mayor Mike Duggan, but the mayor says he's not interested at all in the governor's plan.

Legislative leaders also aren't eager to get involved, either, and are balking at the request for about $70 million a year in state funds annually to alleviate much of the debt accumulated under the past three emergency managers at DPS.

Snyder had initially hoped to get legislation introduced by June. But now the governor's team realizes it won't have a shot at convincing lawmakers to take on Detroit schools while they're still preoccupied with roads. Now, legislation related to schools will likely be put off until fall. Snyder says he has been working with members of the coalition and lawmakers, but it's going to take additional work. This summer, Snyder will meet with lawmakers in small groups or individually to talk about Detroit schools.

Tackling failing schools in Detroit is a vital priority. Given the disparate views of how to go about it, Snyder, the coalition and lawmakers should use the the conference to find a solution they can all agree on.