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The Detroit public schools are a mess, can Michigan's Legislature come up with a solution?

Jun 8, 2016

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was as angry as I’ve ever seen him late last week.

For months, members of both parties in the state Senate had worked with the governor to forge a rare bipartisan compromise to save Detroit Public Schools.

They came up with a figure needed to wipe out the debt and manage transition costs, and agreed to establish a Detroit Education Commission that would decide where any new schools, conventional or charter, could open.

The idea was to maintain balance and not have destructive competition in some areas while leaving other areas underserved.

But last week, the strident partisan ideologues who run the state House of Representatives demonstrated their complete contempt for compromise and bipartisanship, as well as for Detroit and its children.

Led by Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, they rammed through a bill that didn’t provide anything like enough money to allow the schools to make it.

The Republican House bill also allows uncertified teachers to be hired by DPS, and is far more interested in punishing teachers and administrators for striking than in making sure kids can learn.

And House Republicans, many of whom have been financially supported by the charter school lobby, refused to allow any restraint on the crabgrass-like spread of charter schools.

Their bill was so blatantly horrible Detroit Free Press columnist Stephen Henderson said:

“We really ought to round up the lawmakers who took money to protect and perpetuate the failing charter-school experiment in Detroit, sew them into burlap sacks with rabid animals, and toss them into the Straits of Mackinac.”

Governor Rick Snyder, who had been a big supporter of the state Senate plan, instantly signaled that, as usual, he would cave in and sign whatever was put on his desk.

Governor Rick Snyder, who had been a big supporter of the state Senate plan, instantly signaled that, as usual, he would cave in and sign whatever was put on his desk.

But this week, something astonishing happened.

The state Senate fought back.

Senator Goeff Hanson, R-Hart, the main architect of their bill, indicated he wouldn’t accept what the House sent over, partly because it was angrily opposed by every legislator from Detroit, but also because it eliminated the Detroit Education Commission, which he has come to believe was necessary to give the schools a fighting chance.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, realized he had a major problem.

The original Senate plan passed only because it had strong support from most of the minority Democrats.

Half the Republican caucus voted no, because they had no interest in helping Detroit schools.

Now, any bill resembling what came out of the House will have no Democratic support.

“We wanted it to be bipartisan,” Meekhof said yesterday.

He is trying to cobble votes together from Republicans who rejected the original plan, but might support this one because it demands no accountability from charters, all of which operate on taxpayer dollars.

The House leadership ought to have been further embarrassed by the Senate Fiscal Agency’s discovery that the numbers in the House package are essentially garbage, and that close to a hundred million more will be needed just to balance the books.

The original sensible compromise crafted by the Senate is what legislation used to look like before lawmaking was distorted by hyper-partisanship and term limits.

The original sensible compromise crafted by the Senate is what legislation used to look like before lawmaking was distorted by hyper-partisanship and term limits.

The House bill is what we now tend to get instead. What happens next will say volumes about whether the system still can be made to work.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.