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Detroit: thin end of the wedge

Governor Rick Snyder's proposal to restructure Detroit Public Schools is carefully framed to emphasize delivering a quality education to underserved children and careful management of finances. But as with so many education policies these days, which claim to focus on the needs of "children, not adults," the reality is quite different.

To no one's great surprise, his plan bears little resemblance to the plan put forward by a broad-based coalition of Detroit stakeholders issued just weeks ago. Instead, the Governor's plan bundles together a number of policy tools which have been spectacular failures when used separately. Perhaps we are to embrace the notion that, in Michigan, three wrongs do make a right?

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The Snyder plan largely ignores the recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group of local officials, stakeholders, reformers and foundation leaders which released its compromise report in March. For all its flaws, the Coalition report did embrace two key ideas: that Detroit schools should return to local democratic control, and that the State of Michigan should take responsibility for the operational debt run up during its decade-plus tenure in charge of DPS finances. Given the participants in the Coalition, these conclusions were remarkable indeed.

Instead, the Snyder plan limits the return to local democratic control and puts it off into the future. The plan also manages to allow the State to underwrite Detroit schools while still refusing to take responsibility for any of the debt and maintaining "plausible deniability" of a State bailout of DPS. Most importantly, the documents describing the Snyder plan make clear that their focus is on attracting "high performing school operators" to the city, rather than investing money and energy in improving community-governed schools.

When combined with the Governor's recent takeover of the State School Reform District apparatus (which took effect yesterday), and new powers proposed for Treasury to intervene in financially "distressed" districts, this plan accomplishes what they failed to do with the Education Achievement Authority: create a path for community-governed public schools to be converted to private management. This policy goal is not based on evidence but on an absolute faith that private managers and technocrats are always better than democratically-elected school boards.

In the words of the old Tom Lehrer song, "Who's Next?"

Charterization, "EMs" and recovery districts - oh my!

Taking a page from the plans implemented in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, Gov. Snyder proposes splitting DPS in two, leaving the "old" DPS - including its elected board and emergency manager - with no role other than to pay down the existing operational debt. Its sole task will be to collect the local 18 mill non-homestead tax levy which would go for debt payments. A "new" Detroit school system would be organized under an appointed board and would take over all educational responsibilities from DPS. As with charter schools, this new district would receive all its funding from the state. (This arrangement allows the state to say that they are not giving DPS a "bailout.") The board of the new district would eventually transition to local democratic control, but even that gesture is compromised by the fact that another permanently appointed board, the "Detroit Education Commission" would name an overseer for all schools in Detroit - former DPS, charter, and EAA.

This snazzily-renamed "Education Manager" would "review school performance, determine closure timelines for schools that are failing and... administer a new universal enrollment application system," possibly modeled on the disastrous "One Newark" plan foisted on that New Jersey community by their state-appointed superintendent. In other words, the appointed "EdM" - hired by the perpetually appointed "Ed Commission" - would have the power to determine which schools were allowed to open, under what management they would open, and which schools had to close - in addition to controlling the enrollment system. With all school aid distributed on a per-pupil basis, the power to control buildings and enrollment is the power to nurture or destroy schools and districts.

So how would the new Detroit state-run system, the EAA, and the state reform district interact? After all, the EAA was originally intended to expand state-wide and manage the state reform district. Now that the governor has taken control of the reform district by executive order, the new overarching "Detroit Education Commission" begins to look like an ├╝ber-EAA. The administration's FAQ answers that with a notably opaque bit of language: "This is still being looked at closely with the pending executive order regarding the State School Reform Office as well as how it fits into this comprehensive plan for improving public schools in Detroit." In other words: "Trust us!"

What lessons are we to glean from all these policies?

  • If a school district runs into money problems because of inadequate state funding, who is at fault? The school board, administration, and union teachers, of course!
    • What is the answer? Why, "enhanced" austerity plans enforced by the educational experts at the Treasury Department. If that doesn't work? State takeover with an emergency manager, naturally. Maybe they can join that great new system we've got in Detroit!
  • If a school district is struggling academically because of high poverty, who is at fault? The school board, administration and union teachers, of course!
    • What is the answer? State takeover via the state reform district, run by the educational experts at the Dept. of Technology, Management and Budget. "EdMs" for everyone! Conversion to private charter management always works wonders. If that doesn't work? Keep restructuring until everyone flees to charters and the schools cease to exist. "Problem" solved!

Because it's all about the children.

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