To consider the Detroit Schools “rescue” plan passed by both houses of Michigan’s legislature last week and sent to Governor Rick Snyder for his signature, one can benefit from a review of some background:
- Michigan is among the 22 states in which the governor and both houses of the legislature are dominated by Republican majorities.
- According to Gary Miron in a 2013 report for the National Education Policy Center, Michigan is unique among the states in the number of charter schools managed by for-profit Education Management Organizations: “Michigan stands out as an anomaly with 79% of its charter schools operated by for-profit EMOs and another 10 of its charter schools operated by nonprofit EMOs.”
- Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter Center on Reinventing Public Education, expressed dismay after a trip to Detroit back in 2014: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”
It seemed there was agreement in Michigan’s legislature about the need for some regulation of an out-of-control charter school sector, and the state senate had included in its plan a Detroit Education Commission whose purpose was to oversee the authorization and placement of charter schools in Detroit to ensure, for example, that schools remain available for children in all neighborhoods. The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown explains why a Detroit Education Commission had been included in the Senate’s plan: “Currently, charter schools can open with the approval of any one of a number of independent authorizers, such as universities, and there is little coordinated planning about which schools should be allowed to open and where they will be located. Many Detroiters and state Democrats believe that any school rescue package needed to bring order to that freewheeling process by more firmly controlling where and when new schools could open… (T)o Democrats’ distress, the package passed Thursday (by the Michigan House) omitted the Detroit Education Commission, instead creating an advisory council to issue annual reports on the condition and siting of school facilities.”
In a scathing critique of Michigan’s current politics, Jen Eyer of Vanguard Public Affairs describes what happened last week as the Michigan Legislature finally passed a Detroit plan that caved in to House Speaker Kevin Cotter his colleagues: “The Senate, to its great credit, worked for 15 months to craft and pass a bipartisan plan that had the support of (Mayor) Duggan and other elected officials in Detroit, as well as Gov. Rick Snyder. House leaders, to their great shame, subsequently shut out their Detroit and Democratic colleagues and passed a package that none of the above stakeholder supported. Critically missing from the House package was the creation of a Detroit Education Commission that would regulate the opening and closing of public and charter schools in the city.”
Brian Dickerson, columnist for the Detroit Free Press, reports that the current Detroit Schools emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, is also very concerned that the $617 million rescue plan continues to be underfunded by $50 million that will be necessary to undertake repairs to school buildings whose routine maintenance has been ignored in the long fiscal crisis. Dickerson describes Rhodes’ presentation last week to the Free Press Editorial Board: “Rhodes is a… realist…. So instead of characterizing the DPS legislation as ‘a new beginning’ or ‘a good start,’ he methodically outlined what the bills do (acknowledged the state’s responsibility for the school district’s multi-billion-dollar debt, accumulated mostly on the watch of Rhodes’ Lansing-appointed predecessors) and what they don’t do (provide sufficient working capital to make DPS classrooms habitable and keep the school district solvent after the term-limited governor and the incumbent state Legislature are gone). The survival of DPS is in jeopardy, Rhodes conceded, unless Snyder makes good on his pledge to find at least another $50 million to supplement the $617 million GOP lawmakers grudgingly appropriated in a straight party-line vote Thursday morning.” Dickerson’s describes what he believes is, “the sort of local control Republicans envision for Detroit—a marketplace in which parents can shop anywhere they want, but private entrepreneurs decide where to locate the stores, when they’re open for business, and whether the supplement they’re distributing meets the specs mandated by the state Constitution… And leaders like Rhodes and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recognize the double-standard Republican legislators seek to codify in Detroit as a dagger aimed not just at DPS, but at the city itself.”
There are some other poison pills in the plan the legislature has sent to the governor:
- Unlike any other school district in the state, Detroit will be permitted to hire uncertified school teachers.
- The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown reports that the state will assign a letter grade every year for each school based on its students’ standardized test scores. “Any school that gets an ‘F’ three years in a row must be closed, according to the bills, unless the closure would cause ‘unreasonable hardship’ for students.”
- While a proposal to threaten collective bargaining itself did not make it into the final legislative package, salaries for newly-hired teachers will be set based on their job performance including their students’ standardized test scores.
What especially enraged the people of Detroit and Democrats across the state as the compromise was debated in the legislature was the legislative leadership’s refusal to allow any of Detroit’s elected legislators to speak to the rescue package. Michigan’s Eclectablog editorialized: “SILENCED… Democracy in America is founded on representation of citizens by their elected officials. When elected officials are denied their right to speak on behalf of their constituents, those constituents are deprived of their rights and democracy is denied to them. That’s exactly what happened again last night in our state legislature thanks to House Republicans’ heavy-handed move… Meanwhile, after backroom deals were cut between Senate and House Republicans along with Gov. Snyder, the Senate passed the House version of the DPS legislation.”