Detroit Schools Bill Passes, Misses Huge Opportunity

Deflated balloon

Image via Pando.com

The Michigan legislature passed a bill last night that provides $617 million in debt relief and restructuring for Detroit Public Schools; calls for the creation of an A-F school grading system; prevents “authorizer shopping;” allows DPS to hire non-certified teachers; and includes penalties for teachers who engage in sickouts. Here’s a good Washington Post overview and two Detroit News write-up’s. The bill summary is here.

Notably, the Detroit Education Commission (see below), was not included in the bill. Instead of being a big step forward for Detroit, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

Here are my quick reactions:

  • Without the DEC to bring order to Detroit’s chaotic education landscape, the current bill falls WAY short of what’s necessary to improve options for all of the city’s families. While imperfect, the DEC was a good first step in modernizing Detroit’s education governance model. Detroit could have joined the ranks of DC, Denver, and New Orleans as cities taking proactive steps to manage their dynamic city-wide systems of schools. Instead, the idea of the DEC has been reduced to a toothless advisory council that produces one report per year on facilities, siting, and transportation. It’ll be part of the new DPS.
  • Read between the lines and you’ll see the empowerment of the State School Reform/Redesign Office (SRO), which was created when Michigan competed for Race to the Top funds but lay dormant while the precarious Education Achievement Authority (EAA) ran under-performing schools instead. The SRO will lead the A-F grading system and intervene when DPS  and authorizers fail to act on chronically under-performing schools. This is important because it signals a shift in power from the state board of education, the state superintendent, and the EAA to an office under the direct control of the governor — a good thing when difficult decisions have to be made quickly.
  • The politics behind the passage of this bill are ugly. I’m not on the ground in Michigan and I’m more interested in policy design and implementation, so I’m not going to get too far into it. But it seems like the bill — which had widespread bipartisan support, including Michigan’s republican governor, Detroit’s democratic mayor, and the Detroit Caucus — should have trumped the one bankrolled by two far-right special interest groups that put ideology over compromise and pragmatism.
  • Governor Snyder helped get the current bill passed by showing lawmakers how much a DPS bankruptcy would cost the state (and their home districts) should legislation fall apart, but one has to wonder why he didn’t take a more commanding posture to get his version of the bill passed by members of his own party.
  • Standing up an A-F grading system for Detroit schools and eventually the entire state is a good thing if designed well.
  • Preventing authorizing shopping is good, but the provision was used as a low-stakes bargaining chip for the far-right charter lobby. It could have been part of a more comprehensive charter law improvement bill that’s been discussed, but deprioritized in favor of this one.
  • The provisions around hiring non-certified teachers and penalizing teachers engaging in sickouts just seems like a stick-in-the-eye for Detroit democrats. Nothing more.

So what’s next? The difficult work of getting an accountability infrastructure in place and setting up a new district in Detroit will begin immediately. And I wouldn’t put it past Mayor Mike Duggan to keep pushing for the DEC or something like it when the timing is right. In the meantime, Detroit’s leaders should be thinking about what they can do on their own to rein in their charter sector’s authorizer environment and make sure the new DPS doesn’t look like the old DPS.

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