Coalition's Vision for Detroit: More Bureaucracy; Less Innovation

Doubling down on what doesn't work won't fix Detroit schools

A Detroit coalition has released its long-awaited recommendations on education policy for Detroit. Though the coalition characterizes its recommendations as a way to improve the "education landscape" for all Detroit students, the coalition's main apparent goal is preserving the institution of Detroit Public Schools.

DPS Bailout: To that end, the coalition recommends that taxpayers from the rest of the state pay off some of DPS' debt, take on some of DPS' employee retirement costs, increase school funding and remove the district's emergency manager to hand back control to a local school board. The coalition does not mention how much all of this will cost. But with the coalition's recommended $53-million-per-year in debt payments from state taxpayers, combined with a very conservative estimate of retirement costs, these two moves alone could easily cost more than $100 million each year.

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While certainly expensive, the policies listed above won't keep students from leaving. Families are seeking a better education for their children and are enrolling them in public charter schools or other nearby school districts. The Detroit News recently reported that thousands of students leave Detroit for other conventional districts. As many as 50,000 Detroit children choose to attend public charter schools instead of DPS.

There are too many families benefiting from educational choice for any group to reasonably suggest taking those choices away. Instead, the coalition suggests creating a powerful commission, effectively giving an education czar broad power over all Detroit schools.

Bureaucratic Limitations: The coalition's plan would create a "Detroit Education Commission." The DEC would be more powerful than any other education bureaucracy in the state when it comes to controlling parents’ educational choices: The DEC would have the power to close DPS schools and Detroit-area charter schools, determine which new schools are allowed to open, and where those new schools are physically located. The coalition envisions a future where this super commission would even have power over shared city services, including transportation and special education services.

The DEC might even have the authority to override parent preferences when it comes to picking the best school for their child. According to the coalition's report, parents will get their first choice "when available." What that will look like in practice is unclear.

In a potential organizational chart, the coalition envisions the DEC overseeing an office that would cost $4.6 million per year to operate. The bill is a tough one to swallow, since the DEC will be a bureaucratic entity charged with, essentially, slowing the growth of educational options in Detroit.

Many of the DEC's powers, such as deciding whether a new school can open, are a duplication of existing processes. Charter schools already have to be approved by a public authorizer. Further, the DEC's ability to close schools is a duplication of powers already in state law and ignores the fact that charter schools are already routinely closed for poor performance.

The coalition is proposing limiting the growth of educational choice in Detroit, less than two weeks after Stanford University highlighted Detroit's system of charter schools as a "model" for other communities to follow. If policy makers decide to restrict choice, Detroit parents will have every right to question that move.

Detroit public charter school students post higher learning gains than their DPS counterparts. And yet, the coalition’s recommendations strive to preserve the institution that has a long history of failing its students, while limiting new options that hold promise for Detroit families.

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