Editorial: Lawmakers should focus on DPS, for now

The Detroit News

The Michigan Legislature is at an impasse over plans to send hundreds of millions of dollars to Detroit Public Schools and ensure the future of public education in Detroit. A contentious point is whether charter school oversight should get lumped in with the DPS bailout. For now, lawmakers should focus on sending the aid.

Without it, DPS runs out of money by July 1. The House and Senate have passed their respective proposals for the district. The Senate approved $715 million to pay down the district’s operating debt and start up a new district, free from past obligations.

But the House left out $200 million for the startup and conversion costs. Without that amount, the new district would face a projected cash flow deficit of $22 million in August and $80 million by September, according to a report from Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri.

House members should face reality and send the assistance necessary to get the district on a good foundation.

After that, it’s going to be up to a newly elected school board to keep the district solvent, along with oversight from a Financial Review Commission. Both chambers agree to moving to local control in a timely fashion — likely in November.

The biggest sticking point in these talks has been over a Detroit Education Commission. After months of deliberation, the Senate passed bills that include the commission, which would be appointed solely by Mayor Mike Duggan and have authority to open and close DPS and charter schools.

The concept is worrisome to the charter community, which believes the commission as it’s currently envisioned would place the interests of DPS schools over charters and would be more lenient with DPS when it comes to quality control.

The House left out the commission. That’s led to a lot of hand-wringing by Democrats and Detroit leaders, who don’t trust charter school authorizers with the freedom they currently enjoy to oversee their own schools.

In Detroit, more than half of city students attend charters, overseen by a dozen different authorizers. That has created a complicated school landscape, unlike any other U.S. city.

Gov. Rick Snyder has looked to moving Detroit to a portfolio model of schools, as many other cities are doing. That system focuses on independence of individual schools and opening more choices to parents. In 2014, Snyder brought in former Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek to help craft a model for Detroit and other districts around the state.

All the cities often upheld as models for Detroit have fundamentally different school governance. In New Orleans, Pastorek oversaw the chartering of nearly all city schools, which have been run by the state for more than a decade. It’s only now moving back to an elected school board — a transition Michigan leaders should watch closely.

In Denver, the school district is the charter authorizer. And in Washington, D.C., a separate Charter School Board serves as the authorizer for schools in the district, and it is independent of the D.C. public school system.

Cleveland offers the closest example to Detroit, since Ohio law also allows multiple authorizers. Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says Cleveland has a Transformation Alliance, which brings a cross-section of school and city leaders together to provide oversight of district and charter schools. But it plays an advisory role, and its recommendations aren’t binding. They do make a difference though, Aldis says.

Michigan lawmakers should step back from an education commission that would give so much authority to one official.

A voluntary, advisory group could offer more oversight of the diverse school landscape while maintaining the strong culture of school choice in Detroit. And that’s something that can be settled after the rescue package is passed.