Kenneth Burnley’s education legacy may have just taken a big hit. Burnley, the former Detroit Public Schools chief executive officer, had been praised by The Detroit News when he left in July for applying "sound management tools" in the district — an assessment that may be revised following yesterday’s revelation in the MIRS Capitol Capsule that the Detroit Public Schools may have illegally collected $259 million in property taxes since July 2002. This error, which would have occurred on Burnley’s watch, could force the financially desperate school district to refund the money and plunge into a new sea of red ink.

But as significant as this oversight is, what’s every bit as important for would-be school reformers is the school-choice lesson Burnley’s tenure provides.

Burnley became CEO of DPS in 2000. Under Senate Bill 297 of 1999, signed by Gov. John Engler, the Michigan Legislature gave mayors in cities with academically poor school districts the power to dissolve a city’s sitting school board and appoint a "reform board" to run the district. The power was created especially for Detroit Public Schools, and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer subsequently exercised it by appointing a new school board, which in turn appointed Burnley as chief executive officer for the schools.

When Burnley came on the scene, students at Detroit Public Schools were not performing well. In 2002, two years into Burnley’s tenure, the percentage of students in the district who received "satisfactory" scores on the Michigan Education Assessment Program test was well below the average percentage statewide — 10 percent to 29 percent lower, in fact. At the time, Burnley called the scores "plain awful."

Now, in retrospective interviews with the editorial boards of The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, Burnley says that DPS is "in better shape than five years ago. We’ve closed the gap in our reading scores, particularly on the fourth and seventh grade MEAP tests, in the last three years."

No doubt Burnley attributes this success to many factors, but one factor is particularly noteworthy. The Free Press on July 3 quoted Burnley as saying: "Charter schools have also spurred us on. We want to get better. They are taking our children. We have to show results."

Let’s be clear. Burnley’s personal feelings about charter schools may well be negative. In the same interview with the Free Press, Burnley said that if he were involved with a charter school on Detroit’s borders, he’d "pick off Detroit kids." "Picking off" is not exactly a positive metaphor. Moreover, the Free Press quotes Burnley as saying that he would not be involved with a charter school, and that if he were, he would not be able to "look in the mirror very well."

Nevertheless, as a catalyst for reform, Burnley grudgingly attested to the impact of competition from charter schools on DPS’ education quality.

In this view, Burnley is corroborated by recent research, as he probably knows. In April of this year, the Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance released a study by Martin R. West and eminently respected education researcher Paul E. Peterson. The authors concluded that the "A+ Accountability Plan," a Florida law that makes scholarships available for students in schools that received an "F" in the state’s "accountability test," helps to raise test scores in Florida’s failing public schools.[1]

While the authors point out that their research applies only to the state of Florida, similar results could be expected with programs in other states where parents at schools seen as "failing" are given a choice about where the taxpayer dollars allocated for his or her child will be spent. Indeed, Burnley was pointing to precisely the same effect in Detroit Public Schools, which improved their performance when parents were given a mechanism — charter schools and school choice — for educational liberty.

Burnley’s tenure as CEO of Detroit schools has ended, and Detroit voters will elect a new school board on Nov. 8 — the first since the 1999 takeover. It can only be hoped that Detroit voters and the new board members will learn from Burnley’s experience about the positive impact of parental choice on conventional public schools.

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Ryan S. Olson is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.


[1] Their analysis of test score data also revealed that the choice requirements contained in the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act were not as effective as the A+ Plan.