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Fixing Detroit’s schools crucial to securing future workforce, expert says

Dec 21, 2015

The Next Idea

Many of Detroit’s potential workers are leaving school without the math or reading skills required to enter training programs.

There doesn’t seems to be a clear plan for educating Detroit’s children. There doesn’t seem to be a clear plan for training a future workforce.

Dan Varner
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, tells us he can’t speak to whether Michigan’s lawmakers have the will to fix education in Detroit, but he does see a way forward.

“There is an easy place for them to start,” he says. “The Coalition [for the] Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, of which we are a part, is a group of many Detroit stakeholders, bipartisan, all of whom care about education and who laid out a set of recommendations last March, March of 2015, that provide a great starting place for the legislature.”

According to Varner, the recommendations have been endorsed wholly by the Mayor Duggan and in large part by the governor.

Chief among these recommendations is debt relief for Detroit Public Schools. Varner tells us that much of the debt was accumulated under the state’s watch and is guaranteed by the state, “and so the state’s going to have to pay for it at some point. We might as well pay a little bit now as opposed to a whole lot more later.”

Another high-priority recommendation is the creation of a Detroit Education Commission. Varner tells us such a commission would allow schools to be run by their respective entities, but would be responsible for opening, closing, and siting schools so that the city would have the right number of schools. He says that’s a huge part of the problem in Detroit right now, leaving all schools under-enrolled and underfinanced as a result.

"Regardless of your ideology, the fact of the matter is that what we have in the city and what we have in the state, frankly, is broken."

“So there are things like that that the legislature can and should start with and has known about for some time, so hopefully they will have the political will to get them done in short order,” he says.

Varner tells us that under-enrollment and under-financing in schools contributes to the high number of students who graduate high school without the math or reading skills required to enter training programs. Without proper financial support, he explains, it’s hard for schools to ensure every student is getting the help they need.

However, Varner tells us there’s a deeper issue at play here regarding the “assembly line model” we use for schools.

“We assume that all kids of X age are in fourth grade and all kids of X age should be in fifth grade. Some of what we’ve got to do is figure out how to break those tendencies so that children are able to learn at their pace, we’re actually meeting kids where they are, wherever they are, and ensuring that they get what they need before they graduate.”

According to Varner, ideological differences have played a large role in the legislature’s apparent reluctance to find a solution for Detroit’s schools. Some folks feel that education is a public good and should be delivered by the government, he explains, while others believe that education is a commodity that could be best provided by the private sector.

“Regardless of your ideology, the fact of the matter is that what we have in the city and what we have in the state, frankly, is broken,” he says.

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