Republican Senate Bails Out Detroit Schools, Rations School Choice

State's largest teachers union 'applauds'

Legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate made this past Tuesday “a bad day” for school choice in the city of Detroit, according to one education insider.

By a 21-16 vote, the body passed Senate Bill 710, part of a Detroit schools bailout and governance package that among other things gave the insolvent district a $300 million line of credit with the state. That was not controversial, but provisions establishing the nature of public education in Detroit are, especially their consequences for future school choice efforts in the city.

“This was a bad day for parents and students, as we missed an opportunity to improve the academic opportunities for families in Detroit,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, in an email. He continued:

“In its attempt to deal with the fiscal crisis facing Detroit Public Schools, the Senate went too far by voting to limit the right of parents to choose the best school for their children. The Senate legislation establishes a Detroit Education Commission (DEC) which will be a board — appointed solely by the mayor — that will have the power to open and close schools and make enrollment decisions that parents should be making for themselves. It takes educational choice away from parents and gives it to politicians, and should not have been included in this legislation.”

The commission the Senate's package establishes would effectively have rationing power over all new schools in the city, whether regular school district schools or charters. This power is designed to reduce school competition and substitute a central regulatory system under the control of political appointees.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said the state Senate would give too much power to a political commission.

“The new Detroit Education Commission puts all key education decisions in the hands of a few political appointees and is statutorily required to promote the interests of the new traditional school district over charter public schools,” Naeyaert said in an email.

The Senate Republicans’ plan was applauded by the state’s largest teachers union – the Michigan Education Association.

Senate Republicans currently have a 27-11 majority over the Democrats. State Senator Dale Zorn, R-Ida, was one of 13 Republicans who voted for the proposal.

“School choice works when parents have quality options but large areas of Detroit don’t have high-quality options for kids right now and no parent wants to send their kid to a bad school,” Zorn said in an email. “Detroit schools are not working and we need to try something different. … High performing academies can open schools without any oversight. The DEC is designed to help the new community district determine underserved areas of the city and open new schools in neighborhoods where kids live. It also is responsible for reforming or closing the worst-performing schools. The bill contains specific criteria for that process but, generally, if a school is ranked in the bottom 5 percent statewide for 3 years, it will be closed.”

The Senate plan to put the put decision-making power in the hands of a new bureaucracy was not the right answer, said Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“A commission isn’t needed to figure out which neighborhoods are underserved, or where the kids live in DPS,” DeGrow said in an email. “Someone should ask Detroit’s many charter schools, which have to find enough students to enroll in order to stay open. The Senate’s plan gives the commission the power to shut down charters it deems to be weak, but no serious tools to deal with failing district schools. How does that help raise the bar, or give families hope of more effective educational options?”

Note: When this article was first published, it had an incorrect link for Senate Bill 710. The link has since been corrected.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.