Editorial: How to break DPS standoff
Detroit Public Schools is only weeks away from running out of cash, meaning that starting July 1 it can’t meet its payroll and keep operating as a school district. Lawmakers are aware of this and have debated for months the best framework to overhaul Detroit schools, but haven’t found a compromise.
Two of the chief sticking points are over just how much money DPS needs to start fresh with a new school district. It’s agreed that $500 million is needed to pay down past debt, but there’s less consensus over the amount needed to keep the new district in the black and make improvements to schools in great need of upkeep.
The Senate has passed bills to send $200 million for start-up costs and additional academic programs, but the House set aside only a fraction of that — a $33 million loan for transitional costs.
House members have good reason to question exactly how the $200 million would be spent, and Treasury and DPS have been slow to give them a detailed account.
Paying down the past debt is already supposed to free $1,200 per student. Whether the new district actually needs the full $200 million is doubtful, especially when districts around the state are also facing financial struggles. Lawmakers should be able to find a compromise on the funding.
The other piece of the DPS legislation has caused the most consternation. Detroit leaders and lawmakers have said there is no way they’ll approve the state bailout unless it comes with a Detroit Education Commission that would oversee DPS and charter schools. The Senate included the DEC in its version; the House did not, and Speaker Kevin Cotter says he won’t agree to any deal that might limit school choice.
The charter community is justifiably worried Democrats are pushing for the commission to prop up DPS schools at the expense of charters. And the Senate bill would treat district schools more leniently than charter schools; only charters would close for poor performance. DPS schools would be overhauled instead.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, who had maintained support for the DEC, have reportedly started backing away from it.
The state School Reform Office is already playing a bigger role in enforcing school accountability. It’s not clear why Detroit is the only district in Michigan that needs another layer of bureaucracy. Lawmakers should abandon the concept of the DEC and let the reform office oversee school choice.
While Meekhof wanted bipartisan support for the legislation, hoping it would play better in Detroit and get community buy-in, the resolution now may require lawmakers to put together a package that the Republican majority can pass.
That will mean a promise that school choice will be firmly protected in Detroit. Instead of a commission, lawmakers should include a safeguard to protect taxpayers from further liability down the road. Because there is little doubt this bailout won’t solve all of the district’s problems. If new debt is accumulated, the state will again be on the hook for it. So the state must strictly limit DPS borrowing capacity.
This is where the legislation should end: Protect Michigan taxpayers, put DPS on a sound financial footing and turn the district back to an elected school board.