Editorial: DPS deal is best for Detroit kids

The Detroit News

The debate over how to reform Detroit schools kicked off the sessions at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday. A packed room and spirited discussion signaled that this issue is still at the top of the to-do list for Detroiters and policymakers. It should be, given the dire nature of the finances at Detroit Public Schools.

The session, led by Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen, highlighted a debate by Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. and Michigan Association of Public School Academies President Dan Quisenberry. Allen and Rakolta are co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and have pressured lawmakers that unless they go along with the coalition’s blueprint for Detroit schools, children suffer.

Quisenberry is defending the active school choice environment in Detroit, where charters have flourished as parents fled horrible DPS schools.

That is at the heart of the impasse in the Legislature over Detroit schools legislation. Everyone in this debate keeps talking about how adult interests should be put aside in the interest of the students at stake. It’s time for the adults to come together and play nice.

State lawmakers are finalizing a deal that would send at least $600 million to the Detroit district, which faces insolvency by the end of the month without an infusion of cash from the Legislature. The money would allow the district to split into two entities: one that would pay down past debt that is stripping away funding from current students and another to start debt free and focus on the district’s 46,000 students.

Both the Senate and House have passed bills offering financial aid. The chambers agree on the $500 million to pay down debt, but have disagreed on how much to offer the new district so it can have a chance to thrive. The Senate, along with Gov. Rick Snyder, have called for $200 million for transition costs and other infrastructure needs, but the House included a fraction of that.

According to sources close to the negotiations, the Legislature is close to a deal that would send at least $150 million for the new district and make the Detroit Education Commission voluntary.

The chambers remain divided over how far the legislation should go to in controlling how Detroit’s charter schools open and where they locate. Many in the charter community are concerned about the Senate’s version of the DEC, which would help set the benchmark for measuring quality and work with the state’s School Reform Office to decide which schools close. Mayor Mike Duggan would appoint all members on the commission.

The House left out the DEC, and the latest compromise talks would offer a voluntary, advisory board that could coordinate school openings and put together a master education plan for Detroit.

That would be more palatable to charter supporters and many Republicans who’ve voiced their concerns about limiting school choice in the effort to keep DPS more financially stable.

And an advisory board was originally included in Sen. Goeff Hansen’s DPS legislation. Hansen, R-Hart, later scrapped that idea in place of a more powerful commission to get Democrats on board. While he has worked hard for months on the bills — and should be commended for his commitment to Detroit children — the wish for bipartisan support should not trump the best solution for families.

Snyder told The Detroit News Wednesday that he’s open to some give and take to get this done. He still publicly supports the concept of the DEC, but he said he’s most concerned about getting close to the $200 million in transition funds and turning DPS back to an elected school board by November.

“It is so important that all of us are working toward a common solution,” Hansen said Wednesday. “We need to step up and get kids the education they deserve. If not, shame on us.”

That should have always been the goal. This compromise comes the closest to achieving it.