House, Senate must find DPS compromise

The Detroit News

House Republicans jumped into the fray last week over how to reform Detroit Public Schools. Some of their ideas are worthy of debate, but the bills are much more intrusive than the ones offered in the Senate, which means they’ll garner more opposition. Still, the House bills could help chart a compromise.

Last month, Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, introduced DPS legislation supported by Gov. Rick Snyder, but still getting pushback from Democrats, including the Detroit delegation.

To build consensus, Hansen is considering adding in concepts the Detroit delegation likes, such as a Detroit Education Commission that would have the power to open and close all city schools — including charters. The governor originally proposed the idea, but he wanted to appoint the majority of the commission. Mayor Mike Duggan likes the concept, too, but only if he gets to do the appointing.

The House plan leaves out the commission, and sets up a bigger fight with Democrats.

The charter community is lobbying hard against the commission, and for good reason. Charter operators fear they’ll come out on the short end when school opening and closing decisions are made if the commission is controlled by Detroit politicians sympathetic to the teachers union. Similarly, if the state invests millions to stabilize DPS’ debt, it would have a perverse incentive to keep its classrooms filled, even at the expense of charter schools.

The House plan also contains a number of collective bargaining restrictions that apply only to DPS, which could result in legal roadblocks.

The House is selling the legislation as a plan that would “put Detroit students first” by emphasizing academic reforms, in addition to offering debt relief.

The financial piece of the plan mirrors that in the Senate. It would offer roughly $720 million to split the district into two entities — one to pay off the debt and the other a new district to educate students. But House lawmakers want the $72 million a year to come from the general fund. That will be a tougher sell than taking money from the tobacco settlement fund, as recommended by the governor.

The House bills call for an eight-year return to local control — Hansen and Snyder would allow local school board elections this fall.

Not surprisingly, the House is coming down hard on Detroit teachers. The chamber’s leadership had strongly condemned recent illegal teacher strikes. The bills call for tougher strike penalties, limits on collective bargaining and a move away from pensions.

Some of the proposals — especially related to strike penalties and moving teachers to 401(k) retirement plans — are worthy discussions. But lawmakers need to apply them statewide and not just to Detroit.

Other details include an A-F grading system for schools and an emphasis on third-grade reading. Again these are good ideas long sought by education reformers in Michigan, but they should include all schools.

Many of the House proposals are are nonstarters with Detroit stakeholders. But at least the chamber has submitted a bill, and that’s the first step toward a compromise that must come before DPS runs out of money this spring.