Focus turned to Detroit and its public schools at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday, with a panel on DPS and a keynote address from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, in which DPS was a subject of his discussion. 

Panelists Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, and John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge and co-chairman for the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, debated DPS reform in general and the place of Michigan Senate Bill 710-711 within it.

The bill was introduced by state Sen. Geoff Hansen (R–Hart) in January with the purpose of establishing a temporary five-year Detroit Education Commission to oversee reforms and provide money to repay the district’s $515 million debt. The legislation passed the state senate in March with a bipartisan vote and the support of Gov. Rick Snyder (R), but it did not pass through the state House of Representatives.

Both parties agree that major reform in Detroit Public Schools is needed. About 19,000 elementary students in Detroit currently attend schools with less than five percent reading at a fourth grade proficiency level, according to MI School Data. Additionally, the district has run a deficit for 16 of the last 17 years. 

“We all have the goal of increasing academic outcomes for kids,” Quisenberry said. “We also have the goal of improving access to quality schools across the city of Detroit.”

Rakolta favored the legislation because he believes the commission created under the bill would ultimately improve classroom conditions and help control finances.

“If we don’t fix this in Detroit, we’re going nowhere,” Rakolta said. “There is no discipline in our system.”

Quisenberry, on the other hand, opposed the bill because he believes it calls for too much governance. He prefers that the performance be improved by existing leaders within the district, rather than politically appointed individuals, and called for people on his side to not be afraid to make new and different proposals.

“What we want is performance,” Quisenberry said. “Why do we assume that this (Bill 710-711) will have a positive impact on students’ outcomes? Will a D.E.C. (Detroit Education Commission) manage attendance issues across the city? Can a D.E.C. respect and handle the diversity of the Detroit issues? I don’t see how a D.E.C. can do that.”

Rakolta responded by stressing that the current leadership within the district is failing. He touted proposed bills as the best option, especially given the bipartisan support it has received within the state senate and from community leaders.

“Whatever we have today isn’t working, and we can’t wait any longer,” Rakolta said. “The D.E.C. is the best hope and it is supported by a vast number of people.”

During his keynote address to the conference Wednesday evening, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also outlined profound problems in Detroit Public Schools and hailed the bill as being the best solution available to help the district. He also noted how the emergency managers of the district appointed by the state since 2009 have not been successful.

“The structure has no chance; it doesn’t matter who you bring in,” Duggan said. “(The state has) run the system for seven years because they said the school board couldn’t do it, and they’ve run a deficit every year.”

Duggan also hailed Washington D.C. as a model district in which a system similar to the D.E.C. has worked. He said Washington D.C. schools went from being the worst district in reading proficiency in 2007 to among the highest reading proficiency of any urban school district in America, and he hopes the same transformation happens in Detroit.

“Anybody who can look and say we should defend the existing system, to me, there’s something they are not paying attention to,” Duggan said.

Quisenberry said the proposed bill falls short, however, as a means of recruiting new teaching talent and fixing the system already in place. He applauded school systems in Colorado and Massachusetts for having high standards for educators, and stressed that now is the time for educators in Michigan to strive to meet their models.

“It’s about increasing standards and expectations for all of our schools,” Quisenberry said. “I would love this crowd, this community, this chamber, the people in this organization standing up to Lansing and saying now is the time to have real standards and consistency.”

Though Rakolta and Quisenberry agreed that deficit spending in the district needs to be controlled, Rakolta stated that without the passing of the senate bill, there will be more losses incurred in the school system.

“We have had this humongous deficit spending, and I submit that it will continue into the future regardless of what happens in Lansing this week or next,” Rakolta said.

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation — an organization helping students graduate from high school and prepare for college and careers — highlighted the importance of pushing beyond personal perspectives in order to fix the root of the problem.

“At some point or another, we have to make a decision to take away the things that don’t work and add things that do work,” Allen said. “The status quo is not going to improve the quality of schools for children.”

The panelists agreed that the most important factor moving forward is for the people of Detroit to be involved for any future system to work.

“What will happen after legislation will define who we are,” Quisenberry said.

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