House Refuses to Ration School Choice for Detroit Parents, Children

Let parents, not a new bureaucracy, choose schools

The Michigan House narrowly passed a revised plan to aid the financially distressed and academically disastrous Detroit Public Schools, agreeing to send much more money to the reconstituted school district but drawing the line to defend parental choice. Former Gov. John Engler weighing in against a “morally wrong” Detroit Education Commission proposal may have helped make the difference.

The House significantly closed the gap between its initial DPS bailout offer of $500 million and the Senate’s more generous $715 million, settling on a total of $617 million. More importantly, though, Speaker Kevin Cotter and 54 other House members withstood the pressure to limit charter schools in Detroit. They saw through a plan that would have constrained educational choice, a scheme focused on protecting a school district plagued by financial scandal and bearing the nation’s worst academic record.

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Instead of a seven-member commission, appointed by the mayor of Detroit and having a veto power over opening new charter schools, the new House plan establishes an advisory council with the task of providing annual recommendations on school facilities and locations in the city. As approved, the council would consist of the new DPS superintendent and school board president, as well as four additional members appointed by the state’s School Reform Office: a DPS parent, a charter parent, a charter administrator or board member, and a representative of charter authorizers.

There have been some strong reactions to the House’s approval of the new plan. MIRS News Service reports that Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, described it as a “handout to criminals.” Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson wished a drastic fate on supportive lawmakers: “sew them into burlap sacks with rabid animals, and toss them into the Straits of Mackinac,” he wrote.

Such responses are as misguided as they are inappropriate. The Detroit Education Commission would not solve DPS’ deep-seated woes. But for many students, it would limit future avenues of opportunity.

Though no proposal is perfect, the House compromise package mostly fulfills five principles of a sound legislative solution for DPS. If the Senate joins the House in approving this no-DEC compromise, that makes it a worthy cause for celebration. But it also leads directly to a call for action.

As a whole, Detroit charter schools have achieved better results than district schools. But students need more quality seats their families can access. And parents need information that will enable them to make the best decisions, along with capable school leaders who are primarily accountable to them, rather than to bureaucrats or politicians. These will require new options, and new partnerships.

The House majority merits kudos for standing tall on principle — parents, not bureaucrats, are better at choosing schools that work for their kids. In fighting hard to ensure no harm is done, it also has preserved the conditions that best allow for future success. It’s time to stop fretting over saving a failed institution, and time to start creating and pursuing more hopeful opportunities.

Note: Since the initial publication of this article, both chambers of the Michigan Legislature agreed on a bailout package that does not create a Detroit Education Commission.

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