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Lessenberry likes Snyder's Detroit Schools Plan

May 1, 2015

Governor Rick Snyder announced his plan to fix Detroit’s schools yesterday, and to me, the most annoying thing was this: Demonstrators on both sides of the spectrum were rushing to Lansing to protest against his plan before they knew what was in it.

Many teachers took the day off to demonstrate, which the governor rightly found irksome. Meanwhile, conservatives were bellowing that this was “another bailout for Detroit,” without having their minds corrupted by actually knowing what the plan said.

Well, I decided I would form my opinion the old-fashioned way. I would actually read the plan and analyze it. And to my surprise, I think the governor has come up with what seems a smart and innovative solution to fix Detroit Public Schools.

Actually, I didn’t expect to like it. I think the Educational Achievement Authority, his earlier plan to fix Detroit’s poorest performing schools, has been a clumsy failure.

But I was very impressed by this plan, which would preserve the public schools, eliminate their crippling and crushing debt, and transition back to an elected board.

The governor wants to divide the district into two entities, sort of like General Motors during the bankruptcy. The “old GM” was responsible for getting rid of debt and buildings it no longer wanted. Its goal was to put itself out of business.

Detroit schools also would be divided in two. A new City of Detroit Education District would educate students. It would be governed at first by an appointed board. The governor would name four members; the mayor, three .

But within two years, this would begin gradually transitioning to an elected board. Within six years, all members would be elected.    

The schools’ nearly half a billion dollar debt would remain with the old entity called Detroit Public Schools, which would be responsible for liquidating it. The old district would continue to collect the money from the existing millage, and use it to retire the debt.

The governor admitted that much of this debt was state government’s responsibility, and he wants the state to contribute about $72 million a year from the school aid fund until the debt is retired.

He also admitted that “we’re not seeing great performance from (either) DPS or charter schools,” and wants a new Detroit Education Commission to oversee both kinds of schools.

As I read his plan, I kept wondering, what’s wrong with this? This morning, I saw that the supposedly liberal editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press and his conservative counterpart at the Detroit News agreed with me.

One called this the “last best hope” of the schools and the students. But meanwhile, everybody else wailed.

Conservative legislators said they had “Detroit fatigue,” meaning they were reluctant to spend any more money to help. Mayor Mike Duggan said it wasn’t his plan and he didn’t want anything to do with it. And schoolchildren who clearly didn’t understand it were carrying signs saying “Stop the Snyder plan.”

Well, I hope they don’t stop it. Insanity, we all know, is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result. This is the most innovative and sensible plan I’ve seen for trying to fix the state’s most troubled school district. I think it might be worth a try..

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.