From the Daily: A new start for Detroit Public Schools

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 9:23pm

Over the years of Detroit’s economic decline, the Detroit Public School system has suffered immensely. Since 2003-2004, enrollment in DPS has declined by 200,000 students. In addition, the district has accumulated $1.5 billion in debt that has hindered its ability to remain a safe and functional learning environment. Over the past couple of months, teachers in DPS have successfully gained increased media attention for their “sick-outs” in protest of the horrible conditions in many Detroit schools, which has prompted political officials to take notice as well. DPS was on schedule to run out of money by April of this year when the legislature passed emergency funding to keep the schools open through the end of the school year.

The Michigan House and Senate have drafted two separate packages of bills to deal with the long-term prospects of Detroit schools. Both bills split the current district into two entities, DPS and the Detroit Community School District. But only the Senate bill reorganizes Detroit schools in a way that returns significant autonomy to the people of Detroit while still being cost effective. Voters should put pressure on their representatives to pass the Senate package because it has gained bipartisan support and provides DPS with a financially viable route to recovery that prioritizes needs of students. Under both packages, DPS would exist only as a fiscal agent dedicated to paying off debt. DCSD would be a new entity funded with federal, state and local money that assumes the same role that DPS has currently, only with a whole new structural organization. 

Under the Senate plan elections for a new school board would take place as soon as 2021. Until the election, though, there would be a seven-member school board of officials elected by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and Mayor Mike Duggan (D). The current Financial Review Commission would oversee the debt of DPS, like the House bill proposes. In addition, a Detroit Education Commission would be created to appoint a chief education officer, both officials would coordinate community involvement in DCSD.

The Senate package not only offers the most benefit for the community of Detroit, including the schools, teachers, students and citizens, but also has bipartisan support as well as support from Snyder, Duggan and a number of organizations dedicated to education such as StudentsFirst MI, Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, Excellent Schools Detroit and AFT Michigan.

The House package, on the other hand, pushes too hard against educators and leaves the new school district in the hands of government-appointed personnel for too long to be considered beneficial to the Detroit school system. The bill would additionally end teachers’ rights to collective bargaining for anything other than pay and benefits. A financial review commission would oversee the paying off of debt from the old DPS and a new school board would be phased in, taking full control after eight years to oversee the actions of DCSD. In addition to curtailing teachers’ rights and keeping democracy from the citizens of Detroit, the House bill has not gained bipartisan support. 

The House bill also attempts to reform teacher and school evaluations in a manner that could be detrimental to the district. Teachers would be evaluated based on student test scores, giving each school an overall grade that would be available to parents. While the full details of such a rating plan have not been worked out as of yet, any method that significantly relies on student test scores as a means for evaluation does not do the students of Detroit justice. It is important that any plan measures a student’s success using a holistic perspective and not simply their test scores. Such a rating system would also not directly account for physical conditions, which were ignored in the previous mechanics of evaluating Detroit schools.

Though some people may believe that DPS should simply declare bankruptcy, doing so would place the burden of DPS’ debt on the state, which is already in a less than excellent financial state, and is therefore not a financially viable option. In addition to these challenges, the bankruptcy of DPS would likely not allow DCSD to enter into existence with a clean slate dedicated to the betterment of the education of Detroit students.

Among all the debate, it is also important to remember that swift action is necessary. It is likely that even with emergency funding DPS will run out of money by early the end of this school year, leaving 47,000 students without schools. The Senate plan is the right choice for now. But even if all plans run smoothly and DCSD comes to fruition in time to aid the students of Detroit, efforts will need to continue in order to ensure Detroit’s school system not only remains intact, but also delivers to students the education they’re entitled to.

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