Local control of a school district is
central to academic success. The community must be able to place
pressures on and demand accountability from school board officials.
On Nov. 2, Detroit residents decided to take back control of their
school board, five years after a state takeover under former Gov.
John Engler. The majority of Detroiters said “no” to
Proposal E, which would have shifted control of the board to the
mayor. This victory for Detroit’s public school system will
re-establish a local school board that is fully elected and put
Detroit public education in the hands of the Detroit residents who
depend on it.
In 1999, Engler made the decision to take total control of the
school system, stripping power from the voter-elected school board.
The heavily debated decision was supposedly made in the best
interest of the Detroit public schools, which were facing an
emergency under the control of an ineffective school board. When
the decision was made, schools were literally crumbling and lacking
the necessary materials and resources, and school literacy,
attendance and graduation averages were well below the national
levels. State leaders were of the opinion that they could run
Detroit’s schools better from Lansing than Detroit parents.
Engler’s strategy to restore the schools, however, did not go
as well as planned. Five years under the authoritarian rule of
appointed Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Burnley have shown what
happens when an appointed manager of the schools, who has unlimited
authority and is not accountable to the community, is in charge of
the school district. Several schools have closed, class sizes have
grown, thousands of teachers and support staff have been laid off
and enrollment has dramatically decreased.
Proposal E gave voters a choice between putting the school board
in the hands of the mayor or in the hands of Detroit’s
citizens, not between putting the board in the hands of the mayor
versus the hands of the governor. The state, whether or not
Proposal E passed, would no longer have the direct role it did
following Engler’s takeover. However, it is likely that Mayor
Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit would have let Burnley continue as CEO
of the board. Even though having the mayor in control of the school
may have proven more successful than the previous system,
Detroiters decided to assert their authority and put their school
district in the hands of a locally elected board. Kilpatrick,
despite the defeat, said he would work with the new school
Only with a fully elected and fully accountable school board can
the people of Detroit have their demands for an improved and stable
education system met. Hopefully the new school board, which will be
elected in 2006, will restore the integrity that has been lost in
the Detroit public school system. Proponents of Proposal E are wary
that handing control back to a local board will only result in the
schools slipping back into the crisis that they faced in 1999.
Nonetheless, the CEO-run system that they have now and that they
hoped to continue with Proposal E is not the right way to address
the schools’ challenges.
The high percentage of voters who said “no” to
Proposal E on their ballots shows that Detroit residents are
dissatisfied with the state-controlled system. Hopefully this
dissatisfaction will translate into the election of an accountable
and responsible school board with the clout necessary to fight for
the improvements that Detroit schools desperately need.