Duggan's Detroit education commission idea gets tentative embrace from schools leader

Mar 8, 2018

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has proposed a city-wide education commission, but lots of key details are still in the works.

The commission would be “convened” by the mayor’s office, and include teachers, parents, and other representatives from both traditional public and charter schools. It would mainly serve in an “advisory” role, and would lack the power to do things like open or close schools, according to Duggan’s office.

The understanding so far is that in addition to the mayor, it would include the Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent, the head of the DPSCD school board, and the CEOs of some charter schools and authorizers.

Duggan suggests it could coordinate some functions, like joint bus routes connecting schools in some areas of the city. He proposed one such route connecting schools in a section of northwest Detroit, which in addition to providing student transportation to and from schools would also serve as a connector for after-school care and extracurricular activities.

“This is the concept we’re talking about. We’re shooting to get it done this fall,” Duggan said. “I don’t know if it will be six schools or twelve schools, but I can tell you from the enthusiasm that if we could get DPS and the charters working together and collaborating, we could provide good choices right here in the city of Detroit.”

Duggan said schools along the route and private foundations have committed to funding the route for five years. It’s not clear yet who would operate the buses.

Another function Duggan suggested for the commission would be issuing joint “report cards” on school metrics and quality, so that parents could make more informed choices about schools in the city.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the district is on board with that idea and with the commission concept generally, at least for now.

“At the end of the day, I think Detroiters want quality. They want quality traditional public schools, and quality charters,” Vitti said. “This initiative is about beginning to define what quality looks like and measure it, and hold us accountable to it.

“So if we can do that as Detroiters, as opposed to relying on Lansing to do it, then I’m supportive of that and that’s why we are supportive at this point.”

If the commission does indeed take charge of formally grading schools instead of Lansing, the state would need to sign off on that.

The 2016 law that created a debt-free, new-on-paper Detroit school system requires the state school reform office to develop a grading system for its schools. But so far, the state has not done that.

Duggan’s office said Wednesday that it was not yet clear if the state would formally pursue that option, but in the meantime the commission could put out school “performance ratings” in its advisory role however and whenever it wants.

Vitti says this may spark some “legitimate concerns” about a “mayoral takeover” of the schools, but he’s not terribly concerned about that. When Lansing was contemplating whether to rescue Detroit schools from the brink of bankruptcy in 2016, Duggan and some other leaders pushed for an education commission that would have given the mayor substantially more power, but that didn't happen.

Vitti says this is just Duggan’s way of “putting his shoulder to the wheel” on school improvement, in a city where he has no formal power over schools.

“He [Duggan] respects my role. He respects the school board’s role. He respects our jurisdiction, if you will,” Vitti said. “So this is really just about sharing resources to try to make the city better.”