News Story

Czar-Like Detroit Education Commission Part of Establishment's 'War on Charters?'

Critics: Protecting status quo district trumps what's best for kids

At the heart of the current debate over the future of public schooling in Detroit is a proposed entity called the Detroit Education Commission, various forms of which appear in different proposals. The most recent version is included in a Detroit Public Schools bailout bill passed by the state Senate.

Half the Republicans and all but three of the Democrats in the Michigan Senate voted to approve a seven-member commission appointed by the Detroit mayor. Among its powers, the commission would be able to veto any new public school from opening in the city. Critics say the veto would apply only to any new charter school, given that the conventional school district already has about 100 schools in operation.

School choice advocates fear that such an entity in a Democratic Party stronghold like Detroit is a recipe for limiting or eliminating charter schools within the city. Those fears grew when it was reported this week that Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan approved a ban on selling any of 77 properties (including 53 closed schools) to a charter school if it is within a mile of an existing school. The city obtained the properties from DPS in return for forgiving $11 million in unpaid bills.

The ban was not reported in most media coverage of the proposed Detroit Education Commission. Instead, news stories implied that charter schools had some special advantage over district schools, and focused on messages Duggan was sending about wanting to create a “level playing” field between DPS and charter schools. This despite the fact the mayor had been working to stop new charters from opening in the city.

Duggan’s office has not responded to numerous emails seeking comment.

The ban on selling city property to charters drew criticism from charter school advocates.

“This policy does nothing but hurt students, and I would hope that anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to have a Detroit Education Commission in the city would take a close look at this,” said Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, in an email. “Supporters of the DEC talk about how there are areas of the city without enough schools. Well, a misguided policy like this just creates and perpetuates that. This is what life under a DEC would be like — politicians, not parents and educators, deciding where schools should be located with no consideration of whether or not it’s a quality school.”

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, said he was bothered by the city ban on selling unused buildings to charter schools.

“It's further evidence that the mayor's assurance that he would be a fair broker in the appointment and operation of a DEC is both disingenuous and bogus,” Kelly said in an email.

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he has spoken to Duggan about the ban and that the mayor told him he supported charter schools.

“The problem he (Duggan) is having is that if you have a school and a charter school goes right next to it, obviously you have a lot of problems,” Jones said. “He’d like to disperse them throughout the city and not have them within one area. I understand his problem. I don’t think it is a big deal that (they) don’t sell the old school buildings to charters right away. He’s not opposed to having more charters, it’s just he’d like them to go to neighborhoods that are not served.”

The idea of giving a commission comprised of political appointees czar-like powers over Detroit public education has appeared in various forms. The first version of Gov. Rick Snyder’s DPS bailout package contained one version, and proposals from a group called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren have another. That group had insisted the DEC would not be politically motivated.

On its homepage, the coalition has posted its own “fact-checking” on claims about the Detroit Education Commission. They include the following:

"Allegation: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan will stack the DEC deck by appointing only advocates of Detroit Public Schools."
"Actual: The mayor would split the appointments evenly between the traditional public school and charter sectors, including having a parent from each sector serve on the Commission. Furthermore, soliciting community and stakeholder input is mandated for all DEC duties."

John Rakolta, a member of The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, didn’t return an email seeking comment on the city’s ban on sales to charter schools.

Jack McHugh, the legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the Senate-passed bill gives the DEC an explicitly “protectionist” mission of stopping charter schools from competing against incumbent DPS schools, even though children in Detroit’s charters overall do better academically.

McHugh pointed to language in the Senate-passed bill giving DEC veto power over new schools in the city, with decisions “based on the siting of existing public schools.” Also, the bill defines “success” for the DEC as achieving “a stabilization of or increase in the total membership enrolled in public schools located within the community district.”

Attaining that benchmark would permit the commission to remain in existence for another five years after its first five-year term if the Detroit mayor requests it.

“It’s not ambiguous at all,” McHugh said about the DEC’s protectionist mission.

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.