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Finally some solutions for Detroit's schools

Mar 23, 2016

Nobody, including me, has spent much time praising the legislature recently. But the Michigan Senate did something great yesterday.

They passed a comprehensive package of bills designed to save public education in Detroit – not just the students in the nearly bankrupt Detroit Public Schools.

This plan, basically the one Governor Rick Snyder unveiled almost a year ago, would create a new Detroit Community Schools District. There would be more money available to actually educate students -- eleven hundred dollars per pupil, according to State Senator Geoff Hansen, the bills’ main sponsor. That would happen because in a plan that mirrors General Motors’ successful bankruptcy, the old public school district would still exist, but be charged only with paying down the public schools’ massive debt before putting itself out of business.

The students would be educated by the new Community Schools District, which would operate on a one-time special appropriation of $300 million dollars, plus $72 million annually from the Tobacco Settlement money the state gets every year.

If there’s any way of fixing public education in Detroit, this is it.

There would also be far more oversight and accountability. Among other things, a new Detroit Education Commission would have the authority to determine where new schools, including charters, could be set up.

While an elected school board would hire a superintendent, there would be a separate Financial Review Commission for at least the first five years. and a chief financial officer for the schools. There also would be a local accountability plan that would give each school a grade ranging from A to F. There’s a lot to like about this plan, including what Senator Hansen said after it passed. “The time for blame is now past. Now is the time for solutions.”

This, by the way, was that rarest of things, a plan that passed with truly bipartisan support from half the Senate’s Republicans and all but three of the Democrats.

But first, they have to persuade the other half of the legislature, to go along. That may not be easy. House Republicans have indicated they are more interested in taking away teachers’ collective bargaining rights than fixing the schools.

The powerful charter school lobby is against this plan, probably because it would subject where they place new schools to a level of oversight.

The new Detroit Education Commission would be evenly split between representatives from charter and public schools. But nevertheless, it was denounced by the charters and their right-wing allies, who absurdly claim it would make Detroit a “no-choice zone.”

Instead, these bills would make Detroit a place where children would have a fighting chance to get a good education. The state house is about to take a spring vacation, naturally, and won’t take up these bills till they get back.

Meanwhile, the Senate needs to pass a stopgap appropriation of a little less than $50 million to allow Detroit Public Schools to remain open for the rest of the school year.

Fixing the schools is absolutely essential if Detroit is ever to become a place where families want to live. This plan could start to make that happen. Let’s hope our legislators can somehow be persuaded to do the right thing, not just for our biggest city, but our state.

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.