Four Questions About the Detroit Public Schools Plan

Legislators should be skeptical of the Detroit Education Commission

The Michigan Senate passed a package of bills that would rescue Detroit Public Schools financially. Among other things, it includes $48.7 million to keep the insolvent district afloat until the end of the current school year, which is considered a down payment on a larger bailout that includes $515 million in debt forgiveness and another $202 million for transition costs.

The debt forgiveness is not the most controversial part of the package; the state is already on the hook for this money and the district has no way to repay it.

A more contentious part of the rescue plan is a proposal to create a new Detroit Education Commission, appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan, with the power to ration the expansion of charter schools in the city. This comes despite the fact that the best independent research shows charters are currently providing better learning opportunities for Detroit children and that federal reports have labeled DPS as the nation's worst urban school district since 2009.

The Senate proposal’s prospects are uncertain in the Michigan House, which has bailout legislation that is much friendlier toward increasing school choice options in the city. As legislators work out a solution, they should consider the following questions.

1. What are taxpayers getting for the money legislators are sending to Detroit?

Lawmakers plan to give more than $700 million to Detroit Public Schools, but this should be contingent on making the needs of students the top priority, as opposed to preserving the status quo school district. The Senate-passed bills deliver the cash and get little back in reform. They actually make the situation worse by limiting choice. A DPS bailout should come with strings attached —including more school choice, not less, and stringent limits on deficit spending by DPS.

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2. Why do Republican lawmakers want to make choice and competition yield to bureaucratic control and rationing?

Gov. Snyder, the Senate, unions, Detroit Public Schools, and other interest groups claim that rationing school choice alternatives is needed because parents might make the wrong choices. They also say that because so many parents have taken advantage of the choices currently available, charter schools in particular, the viability of the regular Detroit school district has been damaged.

This objection raises serious concerns about priorities. It gives the appearance that these lawmakers care most about keeping the status quo Detroit school district in existence even at the expense of doing what’s best for families and children. Parents have good reason to be voting with their feet when they remove their children from DPS and place them in a charter school. If charters don’t perform, they go out of business. History shows that when DPS doesn’t reform, it gets a bailout. The Senate plan encourages more bad behavior in the future.

3. Who wants the Detroit Education Commission?

Mainly the governor, unions, and interest groups in the city with strong ties to the regular Detroit school district. Snyder cites concerns about school accountability and the financial woes of DPS. Unions want the state to give bailout money and restrict school choice — the Michigan Education Association applauded the Senate plan. An organization called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has also been lobbying for the proposed commission and limits on choice. The organization’s co-chair, Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation, recently said House Republicans are the “worst of the worst” who know little about schools (she later apologized).

4. Why is the commission concerned about charter schools but not about the cross-district schools of choice program?

Large numbers of Detroit children attend public schools in neighboring districts under a “school of choice” program that’s been in place since the late 1990s. If rationing parents’ choices is the way to go, then why aren’t the interests behind the Senate’s proposal also looking to “claw-back” the thousands of Detroit children who now attend school districts like Clintondale, East Detroit, Redford Union and others? This suggests the drivers behind the DEC have a political agenda against charters.

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The Detroit school district has been failing children for decades, and failing taxpayers too. It has sustained its awfulness through successive waves of so-called reform and reorganization, each accompanied by seas of hype and all amounting to mere bureaucratic deck-chair rearranging. The only changes that have had a meaningful impact for Detroit children have been the expansion of charter schools and cross-district schools of choice.

The state is already liable for the operational deficits run up over many years by the Detroit school district (and its various state-appointed managers). In effect, the bailout has already happened, because the state essentially co-signed loans to cover the district’s overspending while knowing the money was unlikely to ever be repaid. The current “crisis” really boils down to a desire by the Snyder administration and the Legislature to stop kicking this can down the road in the form of just extending just another short-term loan.

There is good reason to question whether the regular Detroit school district is capable of reforming itself and delivering a decent education to all the city’s children, even after a bailout. The expansion of school choice alternatives in recent years has been a lifeline to tens of thousands of Detroit families. It is deeply troubling, then, to watch as this Legislature and governor move in the direction of restricting rather than expanding this lifeline, and once again propping up a failed institution.


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