The Detroit Education Commission: A Big Step For Motown Schools

The April bill paving the way for the transfer of schools from the Louisiana Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) made the policy world sit up and take notice. It signaled the next chapter in America’s most ambitious education reform story. Most observers were glad to see the schools transferred back to local control but uneasy about OPSB taking the reins, with the exception of my colleague Andy Smarick who has pragmatic concerns about the policy mechanisms and would have voted against the move.

But policy analysts have given far less attention to a similar debate about the future governance of charter schools in Michigan, where a broad and diverse Detroit-based coalition, the Democratic mayor, Republican governor, and the state senate are supporting the creation of the Detroit Education Commission (DEC) through SB710.

[UPDATE: MI House passes DPS debt relief bill HB 5384 which does NOT include the DEC]

The DEC is important because it offers an entirely new governance model for urban education, which is sorely needed: Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is the worst large urban school district and is thirty days away from running out of money. The rest of the landscape is bedlam too. The DEC will accommodate multiple operators (a district, charters, and a state-run district), coordinate their efforts, and put them on a level playing field. To do this, the DEC would have four responsibilities:

  1. Develop and publish an annual supply-and-demand report to measure gaps in school services.
  2. Develop a single A-F accountability system for all public schools (DPS and charters) and publish the results widely.
  3. Allow any school that earns an A or B grade to replicate freely. All new schools or lower performing schools must earn approval from the DEC before opening or replicating (again, applies to DPS and charters).
  4. Require an authorizer (in the case of charters) or the state (in the case of DPS) to intervene in any school that earns an F grade (i.e., close or transform the school).

Importantly, the DEC wouldn’t run schools. It wouldn’t control budgets. By law, it would be restricted to those four functions listed above. The DEC’s siting and accountability plans must be approved by the state and shared broadly before any action can be taken. And any action the DEC takes can be appealed by schools to the state.

A recent meeting of city, district, and charter leaders improved upon the bill by adding three amendments to make city-owned facilities equally accessible to charters and district schools, apply standards for school openings and closings equally between district and charter schools, and decouple the financial condition of DPS and the DEC.

The legislation isn’t perfect. For instance, the DEC is supposed to operate on $1 million annually, which seems very lean for an agency that will require top talent, deep analysis, serious community engagement, and constant communication of important information.

On a more technical note, the relationship between the DEC and charter authorizers isn’t clear; it hasn’t been since Governor Rick Snyder’s initial proposal. When I read deeper into SB710, it was clear that things could get complicated if the DEC, an authorizer, the State School Reform Office, and the state superintendent disagree on whether a specific school should open in a specific location. The accountability lines aren’t as clean as I’d like them to be, but that’s a function of policy proposals going through the meat grinder of negotiations.

While it’s not the swift quantum leap that Louisiana took with the Recovery School District, it is a positive incremental step toward a modern urban school governance model. The DEC accomplishes the important tasks of providing local control, establishing an enforceable focus on quality, and matching schools to neighborhood need. Oh, and it’s supported by key constituencies: the state senate, the mayor, the governor, the DPS superintendent, many Detroit charter leaders, parents, and business leaders.

However, should the DEC be established, the risk of “Detroit fatigue” in Michigan’s capital of Lansing could mean lawmakers aren’t willing to do the kind of long-term shepherding that’s needed to improve on an important first step. Accountability lines should be clarified. Mid-course corrections will have to be made. In the unfortunate case that the DEC isn’t producing the results it’s supposed to within five years, the bill states that it must sunset — a prudent clause for a high-stakes new endeavor.

If the only other option is a debt-free district with a sketchy track record and a Wild West charter sector, it seems like a risk worth taking.