What’s Wrong with the Detroit Education Commission Idea?

In late March, Michigan’s educational choice supporters were blindsided by the Senate’s approval of a Detroit schools bailout plan that includes the controversial creation of a Detroit Education Commission. To its credit, the House recently approved a package that did not include the commission, resisting the push to ration charter school growth and trap students in failing district schools. 

The Detroit Education Commission would be a seven-member body that supporters say would stop the spread of failing school models and point new schools and school expansions to underserved areas of the city.

Beneath the surface lies a far more troubling reality. The legislation adopted by the Senate establishes the commission for a five-year term, at which point it could be renewed for another five years. One deciding factor would be an improved financial condition of the newly renamed, debt-free Detroit school district. The only means at the commission’s disposal to improve district finances would be to preserve or bolster enrollment — and approving more charters would clash with that purpose. 

Under the current mayor’s leadership, the Detroit City Council obtained vacant school properties from the district, then adopted a resolution forbidding their sale to charter operators. The commission, appointed by the mayor, would have the power to decide where new schools could be located. It could shut down poor charter schools (a task currently left to school authorizers). But it would have no new means or political will to address district-run schools demonstrating repeated failure.

Essentially, the purpose of the commission would be to shield the school district from competition. A better approach would be to transform the district central office from a costly command-and-control center to an authorizer that contracts with charter operators to run individual schools.

The Mackinac Center has spoken out — through the media, at the Legislature, and in other forums — to explain why the commission is absolutely the wrong approach for Detroit students. Lawmakers should resist the expansion of bureaucracy and embrace true choice and accountability.