C. Choice as a Paradigm Shift: Detroit Leads the Way

What most districts in Michigan lack in terms of vision for schools of choice may be compensated for by the comprehensive vision for choice being put forward in Detroit. Although the recent election defeat of 3 school board members leaves uncertain the future of these reforms, Detroit more than any other district has recognized the potential of the schools of choice concept. Rather than viewing choice as merely an add-on to existing school improvement programs, Detroit's school board and superintendent viewed choice as the centerpiece of a comprehensive plan which:

  • facilitates creativity by allowing teachers to design and submit proposals for new schools;

  • promotes school-level decision-making by shifting resource control from the central administration to individual schools;

  • stimulates diversity by permitting schools to design their own curricular and pedagogical approaches to educational improvement;

  • provides genuine autonomy through a chartering mechanism which would free schools from regulations of the central administration and from unnecessary work rules and labor practices;

  • seeks to expand the range of school options by chartering existing independent schools and new schools yet to be created into the Detroit Public School System; and

  • improves accountability by transforming the role of the administration from process control to being primarily responsible for assessing outcomes, ensuring compliance with Board legal requirements, and adherence to the District's educational mission and other objectives.

Facilitating Creativity

If choice assumes diversity, then diversity presupposes creativity. Of the districts surveyed, few took measures to encourage creativity on the part of teachers or principals independently of administrative control.

In Detroit, according to district documents, teachers have been allowed to write Letters of Intent which amount to proposals for innovative new schools of choice. Such submissions must address a variety of considerations, including the proposed school's theme, focus and curriculum. Teachers designing new schools of choice must also explain the need for the proposed school and define the target group i.e., those whom the program is intended to attract and benefit. These requirements help ensure that schools created under the rubric of choice are responsive to parents' and students' educational demands.

The teachers involved in creating new schools must include information on the school's enrollment area, proposed location, recruitment plans, student selection criteria, student application process, staff selection process and grades to be served. Plans for new schools are subject to committee evaluation and are evaluated in terms of need (what problem is being addressed), organizational plausibility, and likelihood of success. Teachers whose proposals receive initial approval are given grants for further refinement of their plans.

Empowerment Allows Flexibility Through School-Level Decision-making

If diversity assumes creativity, creativity requires school-level autonomy. Many school districts are developing plans for some form of site-based management in accord with Public Act 25 (a state law passed several years ago to encourage school improvement through restructuring). But none boasts the magnitude and breadth of Detroit's empowerment plan, which outlines a dramatic paradigm shift that changes Detroit Public Schools (DPS) from top-down process control to school-focused control of educational programs, resource allocation, and personnel as well as expectations for student and parental support and community involvement. Specifically, Detroit's empowerment plan/paradigm shift:

  • increases the portion of DPS funds allocated to empowered schools using a per pupil allocation method;

  • increases spending authority for school budgets from 15 percent to nearly 100 percent for empowered schools;

  • empowers schools to buy support services on the open market rather than forcing them to rely exclusively on the central administration;

  • provides transition assistance to schools from the central and lower level administration and/or external sources (e.g., budgeting, financial accounting, computer information services, contracting/bidding, etc);

  • shifts administrative curriculum responsibilities from controlling decision making to a service support role for curriculum development; and

  • shifts personnel management authority from the central administration to individual schools with flexible work rules at the school site.

Chartered Schools: Diversifying School Management, Increasing School Options

In March of 1992, the Detroit School Board passed a resolution outlining its plan to offer charters to existing public schools and potentially to independent schools and new schools yet to be created. Broadly stated, charters are legal contracts providing individual schools autonomy in exchange for a commitment to specified goals and outcomes.

According to Detroit Board of Education members April Howard Coleman and David Olmstead, chartered schools would enjoy all the benefits of empowerment:

Charter schools would have different philosophies and different curricula, but they would all play by two rules: no tuition and no discrimination in admissions policies.

All decision-making power would be transferred to the individual chartered school. A school's charter would set forth its educational mission and its philosophy and establish the roles the principal, teachers and parents would play in governing it.

Once granted, the charter would free the school from the regulations of the school district's central administration. Teachers would be free to teach in a supportive atmosphere with an unusual degree of professional autonomy. The school would also be freed from unnecessary work rules and labor practices, while the collec­tive bargaining process would be respected, and teacher salaries established in accordance with that process.

Chartering is critical because it would allow us to create private school conditions in public schools. (Detroit News & Free Press, February 23, 1992)

In the October 29, 1991 Detroit Free Press, then-President of the Detroit Board of Education Lawrence C. Patrick, Jr., explained that the empowering and chartering process would decentralize authority and increase schools accountability to their clients:

Essentially, our plan is to move authority, resources and accountability away from central administration to parents, teachers and principals in local schools. Our initiatives creating empowered and chartered schools will enable parents to choose the kind of education they deem most appropriate for their children in schools their tax money supports.

As Coleman and Olmstead correctly observe, families with sufficient money have always been able to choose private schools for their children, if they desire to do so, but less affluent families have seldom had any choice. Through chartering, the number of public schools that offer distinct educational philosophies or approaches could grow exponentially.

Although Detroit's chartered schools will not have to be schools of choice, it appears likely that they will open their doors to students from other neighborhoods, provided that they have available space or can design some way to accommodate them.

Chartering Private Schools to be Public

Perhaps the most revolutionary component of Detroit's charter program is the plan to offer charters to existing independent schools, in effect enabling private schools to join the public school system by declaring themselves public. According to Education Week of February 6, 1991,

In order to enter the Detroit public school system, Mr. Olmstead said, private schools almost certainly would be required to show that they will charge no tuition, have equitable admissions policies, and conform to public school policies regarding the First Amendment to the Constitution and its separation of church and state.

According to the board resolution, staff members of the newly chartered schools would be paid no less than equivalent personnel currently employed by the Detroit public schools. In addition, the chartering of such schools would not result in the reduction of resources available to children in non-chartered public schools....

"What we are trying to accomplish," Mr. Olmstead said, "is making the central administration and school board so non-intrusive that even a private school outside the system would be willing to come into the system."

The complicating details of such an extensive reform effort have yet to be resolved, however. As the same article noted,

The charter is still very much in its conceptual stage, and numerous legal, political, and labor-related questions need to be addressed before the first private school can be chartered as public, board members and experts on educational governance stressed last week.

"The first hurdles that they are going to have to cross are the constitutional hurdles," said Robert G. Hams, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, noting that the state Constitution prohibits the use of public funds at private schools except for transportation....

An amendment added to Article VIII, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution in 1970 stipulates that no public money or property can be used "to aid or maintain any private, denominational, or other non-public, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school," with the exception of money paid for the transportation of students to and from school.

Momentum is building across the state, however, to reform Michigan's Constitution to allow school districts such as Detroit to build a more diverse mix of public schools in order to offer parents greater choice and stimulate more competition within the public school system. TEACH Michigan, a statewide coalition of business leaders, educators, parents and taxpayers, is planning to propose such a constitutional reform by initiative in 1994.

Per Pupil Allocation for Choice Schools: Stimulating Responsiveness and Rewarding Excellence.

A central feature of Detroit's long-range plan for schools of choice is to base the funding of choice schools on pupil enrollment. Each school would be eligible to receive the same per pupil allotment, approximately $4,200 in 1992; special needs students, would qualify for additional funding, depending upon their category of need. Schools would no longer receive lump-sum allocations irrespective of enrollment or performance.

The first benefit of this funding arrangement is to assure school managers and employees that the system for funding schools is fair and consistent, not arbitrary. Schools with the same enrollment would receive equal funding.

Secondly, and more importantly, schools would now see a direct relationship between enrollment and funding. Rather than losing (or gaining) only a marginal amount for each student lost (or gained), schools would lose (or gain) the full pupil allocation which accounts for both variable and fixed costs, whereas the marginal amount covers only variable costs. As a result, schools stand to lose (or gain) proportionally more when enrollment shifts occur. Moreover, the funding loss (or gain) is directly tied to pupil enrollment.

Schools would have a strong incentive to retain existing enrollment and to recruit new pupils. Schools would thus have a strong incentive to respond directly to parents and students and thus a powerful reason to improve performance (to the degree that parents and students base their enrollment decision on a schools performance).

Improved Accountability through Reformed Central Administration.

Detroit's vision for schools of choice includes a paradigm shift from central administration as a sole-source provider of support services to an administration structured as a vendor of support services competing in the open market to secure provider contracts with Choice schools. This shift defines a permanent outcome assessment role for the central administration, a responsibility to assure that district schools comply with state laws and board policies, and a duty to facilitate district planning.

The importance of this paradigm shift for accountability should not be underestimated: First, by separating a district's central administration from individual school management, the administration is no longer responsible for micromanaging each school's day-to-day operations. The administration's primary focus becomes assessment; its mission becomes clear and it has both the time and resources to accomplish it. Second, because the central administration no longer directly controls schools management, but rather acts in a support capacity, it can objectively assess school performance. Assessment, by definition, must be performed by a distinct entity from operational management if it is to be objective. A source of objective information is critical for both school boards and parents to hold schools accountable for their performance. A major deficiency of most choice programs is the absence of an objective source of information about school performance. Parents especially cannot be expected to make credible, well-informed judgments about schools without sound information.

Choice makes this separation of powers, i.e., assessment from operational management, more feasible by generating a new source of accountability within the system. Teacher, parent and student choice together provide a bottom-up form of accountability, thereby allowing administration to concentrate more fully on assessment and less on micromanagement.


Detroit's vision of school reform is noteworthy in both its comprehensiveness and its unity. Each of the reforms outlined above is a paradigm shift in and of itself, but each represents a critical element of a systemic paradigm shift. Choice is central to this systemic paradigm shift because it serves as the vehicle for empowering teachers, parents and students, thereby making them allies for school improvement.

Ultimately, however, what makes Detroit's vision of choice so progressive is its Willingness to reach out via charters beyond the educational community to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit in the broader community. In effect, Detroit is restoring the community focus to public education, and in so doing, returning public education to the public.

Detroit's recent experience with teacher union opposition to empowerment, however, indicates the near-futility of systemic efforts for choice within the present system, despite heroic leadership from Detroit School Board members. It calls for greater state leadership to break gridlock within the present system.