New Detroit school board should consider all educational options

The newly elected Detroit Public Schools Board of Education was recently sworn into office. Six women and five men comprise the first elected board since 1999, when state law was changed to allow the mayor of the City of Detroit to appoint all but one member of the board of education. That ushered in almost five years of political turmoil, the consequences of which were evident even in the 2005 Detroit mayoral election. The challenger, Freman Hendrix, was appointed by then-Mayor Dennis W. Archer to chair the first so-called reform board of education. He was castigated during the mayoral campaign for his efforts to preserve order during those early board meetings. In the meantime, many district schools continued to under-perform and parents continued to look for alternatives. The only visible success of the reform effort was the fact that $1.5 billion in bond money that had languished under the previous elected board was finally used to repair, remodel and build new schools.

Under the 1999 law, after five years, Detroit voters were permitted to vote to either keep the appointed board or return to an elected board. Last year Detroit voters overwhelmingly voted to return to an elected board. While some of the appointed board’s critics complained about lack of educational achievement over the five years, most of the criticism was that Lansing had taken away Detroit’s "right to vote." This act was viewed as racist by many. So instead of looking at the reform effort as a way to move forward, the reform board critics chose to move backwards.

This is not to say that the reform board was the ideal solution. It missed many opportunities to improve students’ academic performance; it failed to get a handle on spending; it failed to gain key work rule concessions from the unions; and it failed to achieve adequate yearly progress as a district under the No Child Left Behind legislation. More than half of Detroit Public Schools are in some phase of improvement and 17 percent of those are in the final phases of restructuring for longstanding failure. According to the State Department of Education, six of the 24 schools on a critical list of the state’s most troubled public schools are in Detroit. These schools have failed to meet academic standards for six straight years.

The challenges facing the newly elected board are clear. Yet one wonders if these well-intentioned and well meaning men and women truly appreciate the depth and complexity of the problem.

  • Will they be able to change the minds and hearts of the 20,000 employees so that they will embrace a culture of achievement instead of the culture of failure that seems to be pervasive in the system?

  • Will they be able to encourage major institutional players, such as the teachers union, to think first about the impact of policies and work rules on children and learning?

  • Will they be able to find the administrative leadership who will see the position not as just a job, but a "calling," and who will not be deterred from the goal of providing a quality education for every child?

  • Will they use every reasonable means, no matter how politically unpopular, to ensure that every child has an opportunity to receive a quality education?

  • Will they listen first to parents and students rather than the politically powerful whose interests run contrary to those the district is required to serve?

Based on media reports and personal interviews, it appears that few of the new board members are prepared to take radical or even unpopular steps to quickly address the daunting issues facing the district. One board member sees the solution to the district’s problems as getting rid of the current CEO and allowing no more charter schools. This is just the kind of thinking that will force Detroit parents who care about their children to look for alternatives. Those who are able will move out of the district and the city and the district will continue to suffer the loss of population. Even worse, families with low incomes and those who have recently lost jobs due to the problems in the auto industry will be forced to continue to send their children to schools that will fail them, year after year.

Detroit parents are not unlike parents everywhere. They want the best education possible for their children. They understand how important education is to their children’s ability to succeed in a world increasingly driven by global competition. Their children are not just competing with children from Southfield, West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills or Birmingham; they are also competing with children from India, Singapore, China, England and France, to name but a few.

In a recent poll conducted by Troy-based John Bailey and Associates on behalf of the Detroit chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter schools association, only 44 percent of Detroit parents rated their public school as above average to excellent. By contrast, the poll found that 72 percent of Detroit parents who send their children to charter schools rate them as above average to excellent. More than half of the Detroit parents polled believe there are not enough educational options in Detroit and have considered moving out of the city in order to have those educational options.

The newly elected board will have to face and address this reality if it is to meet parents’ expectations. Detroit BAEO, whose mission is to actively support parental choice, to empower families and increase quality educational options for black children, will be watching for signs that the new board takes seriously its first obligation: that Detroit children receive a quality education. DBAEO supports quality educational options for black children regardless of which institution provides them. We believe that the new board should not foreclose the charter school option, if opening more charter schools will more quickly provide quality options for Detroit parents. Detroit Public Schools has the option to establish charter schools and decide who will provide the education services to those schools, thereby ensuring that only those education service providers who provide quality educational programs, and who have the best interest of Detroit students at heart, will be selected to manage the schools.

We also support quality traditional public schools. Indeed, Gompers Elementary School, part of DPS, was recently honored with our "In the Spirit of Choice Award" for its outstanding efforts in educating Detroit children.

We at DBAEO wish the new board well and Godspeed. Detroit children deserve nothing less. Our commitment at DBAEO is to support the board in its efforts to provide Detroit parents and children with quality educational options; to work with Detroit parents to educate and inform themselves about their rights; and to be advocates for parents and quality educational options.

Harrison Blackmond is President & CEO of the Detroit Chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.