Detroit needs more than a revitalized downtown with new office workers to spur its rebirth following the largest public bankruptcy in U.S. history. It needs to upgrade a public school system that's considered the worst of its size in the nation.
Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, is proposing another pricey state bailout and a sweeping reorganization that could lead to closing independent, publicly funded charter schools, where an increasing number of city students are enrolled. The posture is at odds with his party's unflinching commitment to the school-choice movement, and the plan's implementation will require convincing bailout-fatigued lawmakers to send $715 million more to Detroit.
"Education is one of those elements to continue the comeback that's critically important. The sooner we do it the better," Snyder told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "I want to help these kids as fast as we can."
The success of Snyder's unique school-repair method could set the course for whether Detroit moves beyond its failed past. But, so far, he has failed to build consensus around his plan, which he hoped to sign into law before 2016 but hasn't even been introduced in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Michigan, as a whole, has a higher percentage of charter students than all but two other states. And in Detroit, more than half of students attend a charter school, the second-highest proportion nationwide behind New Orleans.
The district has been under state emergency financial management for nearly seven years yet still runs deficits blamed on factors such as declining enrollment, which is a third of what it was a decade ago.
Its performance metrics are disheartening, too. Only five of 229 public schools serving predominantly Detroit students — traditional schools, charters and schools run by a state turnaround district — exceed the state average in reading. And just 4 to 7 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in math and reading in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, dead last among 21 participating urban districts.
Many of the students who have left Detroit Public Schools now attend charter academies in the city or suburbs — schools authorized by 14 entities, predominantly state universities, that decide where to open them and which schools to close.
"They do it with little coordination and little accountability," said Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which advocates for Detroit children. She co-chairs a coalition of business, labor and community leaders that supports some of Snyder's concepts.
Snyder wants to create a commission of gubernatorial and mayoral appointees to hire a manager who could shut down or reconfigure poor-performing Detroit schools, regardless of whether they are traditional ones or charters.
"There shouldn't be a difference in how we treat a charter school from a public school in terms of transparency, openness and performance," said Snyder, who in 2011 signed a law lifting a statewide cap on the number of charter schools.
Charter advocates say Snyder's proposal would create an unneeded layer of bureaucracy.
"That's pretty broad, sweeping authority that we think would be misused over time," said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. Instead, he said, there could be better coordination to ensure schools are located where kids are living, without needing a "czar," noting that 20 new charters opened in Detroit in the last six years but 15 others closed.
School-choice promoters cite research showing that Detroit charter students learn better than DPS peers.
Allen recognizes the doubts Republicans have about whether such an entity could be impartial given the politicized education environment. But, she said, "if we do not do this, we literally will not see any academic achievements in our region."
Snyder also is struggling to find common ground on other pieces of his plan, including when to return control of DPS to a locally elected board.
GOP House Speaker Kevin Cotter said he is "greatly" concerned and does not see why charter schools should be "tangled up in that mess." Democrats want to jettison the Education Achievement Authority, a Snyder-supported state entity overseeing 15 Detroit schools, and are suspicious that more schools could be converted to charters.
But those with perhaps the most at stake — parents of children in Detroit's schools — are imploring legislators to act.
Wytrice Harris recently participated in a march from Detroit to the Capitol in Lansing, where she expressed frustration about continued instability in the schools after years of state control. Discouraged teachers recently coordinated mass absences, or "sickouts," that forced schools to close.
Harris was fortunate to send her twins to private schools through eighth grade. Now 10th-graders, they attend a public school where she said there has not been a full-time English teacher for most of this academic year.
"None of us have local say in our schools," Harris said.
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