School Choice Withstands Twists and Turns of Detroit Debate

Having lived most of my adult life in Colorado, I’ve driven more than my share of winding mountain roads. But their twists and turns have nothing on the recent legislative saga resolving the debate over Detroit Public Schools.

When the dust settled in June, the all-out blitz to create a Detroit Education Commission was effectively blocked. The new bureaucracy had been pitched as a way to address the frustrating shortage of effective schools in the nation’s worst-performing school district, but ended up on the ash heap, at least for this year.

The urgency of the debate was real and intense. Due both to declining economic conditions and parents voting with their feet, DPS lost nearly three-fourths of its enrollment over the past 15 years. In a survery conducted every other year, Detroit students registered the lowest achievement scores among urban districts four consecutive times from 2009 to 2015.

Fiscal mismanagement hastened the day of reckoning. DPS faced giant credit card bills just to keep the lights on and to make payroll. Apart from the noteworthy kickback scandal and other evidence of corruption, the district is burdened by a large and well-paid central administration that lags in downsizing. The local school board led DPS into deficit and financial distress, while state emergency managers have been unable to stop the trend.

For the sake of the city's children, education needs to improve in Detroit. Unfortunately, the proposed commission took aim at the wrong target: drastically curtailing the growth of public charter schools.
The seven mayoral appointees would have been empowered to decide school closings and sitings — problematic, as their metric for success would have been preserving the district’s student enrollment.

The best available research shows Detroit’s charters as a whole boost key areas of student learning by two to three months a year, and with little more than half the dollars per student spent by DPS. Impatience with the small but real progress charters have made does not call for tightening the leash on the only real hope for many families.

When Senate Republicans introduced the first round of DPS legislation in January, the commission was not part of the $715 million bailout package. Bill sponsors later negotiated with Democrats to pass a deal containing the measure, with the blessing of the governor and Detroit’s mayor.

The pressure was on the Republican-led House. Speaker Kevin Cotter and his team earned commendation, not once but twice, refusing to back down. After adopting their own $500 million DPS reform package, they negotiated with the Senate, relenting on some proposals and compromising on the bailout amount.

But Cotter and the Republican House navigated the debate’s daily twists and turns, and sent a loud, clear signal to the other chamber. They stood their ground against a Detroit Education Commission. 

At multiple points, just as it seemed the effort to create a DEC-free reform package was about to succeed, opponents pushed back. Many Detroit leaders were not satisfied getting almost everything they wanted, when almost everything did not include the commission. 

The Senate persevered through the last-minute ordeal, narrowly approving the House’s offer with only minor changes, avoiding the dangerous precipice of DPS bankruptcy. Such a result would have left school choice defenders on untenable ground, with the state on the hook for most of the money anyway. The governor’s signature sealed the deal, defeating the commission proposal and protecting parental choice. 

Two realizations mitigate our feelings of relief. First, a great deal of effort was expended to defend ground already occupied. And lastly, far more work remains to make sure that all Detroit students and families can access needed quality options.