Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the official plan to reform Detroit Public Schools sounded a lot like something a Mackinac Center analyst might have written. Indeed, the school district, once called a “national disgrace”  by Dan Rather, appears to have finally turned the corner, and the students of Detroit are looking at a brighter future because of it.

Self-governing schools are the key element of the district’s plan, a concept core to the idea behind charter schooling. Beginning in the fall of 2012, the district will move 26 schools, including 16 authorized charters, out from under the crushing district bureaucracy that often stifles innovation and improvement. These schools will have new autonomy, but also accountability — both to the parents who choose to enroll their children in them and to the district that oversees them.

This is a massive culture change for DPS — and the district’s new plan recognizes this. It calls for the district to transition from a “monopoly provider of school services” to one that holds itself accountable “to provide the services that its customers — schools — demand.” Further, the districts “plan to turn its traditional centralized bureaucratic business structure into one that is efficient, and financially self-sufficient” by competing with other firms to provide the city’s schools with fee-based services.

The architect of this plan is current emergency manager of the district, Roy Roberts. Empowered by Public Act 4, a 2011 bill that reformed Michigan’s emergency manager law with several recommendations made by Mackinac Center analysts, Roberts is on a course to hand back control of the city’s schools to the people that matter most: teachers, parents and students.

Urban education reform has proven to be one of the most difficult challenges in all of public policy. While there are still a number of key questions that remain unanswered in Detroit — especially how to implement all of this with a highly unionized and trenchant workforce — its move to leveraging choice and competition is the first and most important step to its rejuvenation.