Our editorial: School choice at risk in Detroit
The Legislature is starting to move on bills that would provide more than $700 million in state aid to Detroit Public Schools, along with a new governance model. And while the funds are necessary for the district’s survival, lawmakers must ensure they don’t unintentionally create a bigger mess for the city’s families.
The Senate finally passed its version of the DPS bills Tuesday, after months of wrangling and struggling to get the votes needed to pull it off. Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, led the effort and worked closely with Gov. Rick Snyder to craft the legislation.
But the bills are very different from how they started a few months ago. Only half of the Senate Republicans supported the effort in the end; seven Democrats signed on. While Snyder’s administration sees this as a bipartisan victory, the Senate’s final plan contains several troubling elements that could backfire on the strong school choice environment that’s developed in Detroit.
Snyder knew he couldn’t get everything he originally wanted in the DPS bills. That became especially true early this year, after the Flint water situation tainted the governor and his consequent ability to get his Detroit schools package through the Legislature.
In return for sending $72 million a year to the district for a decade, Snyder had wanted a significant hand in the ongoing oversight of DPS finances and operations.
That’s not how the legislation turned out. Now state involvement is limited to an expanded Financial Review Commission, which currently oversees the city of Detroit’s finances. The state’s School Reform Office would also play a role.
Power would immediately return to an elected school board; that could happen as soon as August. Mayor Mike Duggan would call the other shots, including making all appointments to a Detroit Education Commission — a board that would have the authority to open and close all schools in the city, including charters.
Charter proponents have opposed the idea of a commission from day one. They have good reason to be concerned. The commission, under the current legislation, could effectively ban new charter operators from opening schools for the next 10 years.
DPS schools would inevitably be treated more favorably than charters when it comes to closing poor-performing schools. That’s because the commission’s renewal after five years would be dependent on the financial stability of DPS. Financial health is tied closely to a district’s enrollment. The commission would have a perverse incentive to boost enrollment at DPS over charters.
“In its attempt to deal with the fiscal crisis facing Detroit Public Schools, the Senate went too far by voting to limit the right of parents to choose the best school for their children,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, in a statement.
Proponents of the legislation say these fears are unfounded, but as the bills now move to the House, lawmakers in that chamber must take a close look at the language and its potential impact.
House leadership has already signaled it’s not thrilled with several aspects of the Senate bills, and its own version of the Detroit schools legislation has focused much more on DPS rather than the broader school community.
Last week, the House passed an emergency $48.7 million appropriation to get DPS through the end of the school year. With the Legislature about to go on a two-week break, House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, has asked the Senate to sign off on that. It would buy lawmakers more time to finish the larger bailout package.
A long-term solution is needed for DPS, but the financial needs of one school district should not come at the expense of taking options away from Detroit families.