Education
9:02 am
Mon April 11, 2011

Rethinking Public Schools

There's been a flurry of speculation lately that perhaps the best choice to replace Robert Bobb as Emergency Financial Manager of the Detroit Public Schools might be ... Robert Bobb himself.

Bobb's contract expires at the end of June. While he has faced endless financial problems, his main frustration during his two-year stint running the schools seems to have been a court decision that his powers did not extend to determining what kids actually learn.

The academic curriculum, in other words. However, that has been changed by the new Emergency Financial Manager law. Last Thursday, Bobb said in an interview with the Detroit News that he wasn't lobbying to keep the job, but added, "I do drool when I think of the pace of change we could achieve under the new law."

That same day, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing about a number of topics, including education.

He said he admires much of what Bobb had done. "He made a lot of hard decisions that had to be made, and I respect him for that. He had an impossible job from a fiscal standpoint."

However the mayor didn't think the emergency financial manager deserved an A. He noted that whether out of necessity or not, Bobb had alienated teachers and people in the community.

And Bing felt that it was clearly time for Bobb to go. Indeed, the governor's office also seems to be lukewarm at best to the idea of his staying around. But the mayor said something else I found even more interesting about public education in Detroit.

What may indeed be happening is that in the future, most public education in the city will take place apart from the trouble-plagued Detroit public schools. "People are now talking about systems of education, rather than DPS," the mayor told me.

What he meant by that was this: "There are private schools, parochial schools, charters. You know, forty percent of our kids now go to charters -- forty percent!  -- and that number is only going to grow."  Charter schools, are, by the way, alternative public schools. Incidentally, even many fairly sophisticated adults don't understand exactly what they are. They are not private in any sense.

They receive state money and have to meet statewide standards, including the use of certified teachers.  Regardless of how you feel about traditional public education, it is clear that the people of Detroit have overwhelmingly rejected their school system. Mayor Bing feels that if you can't beat them, you might as well join them. Or, as he put it, "if they are going to lose students out of DPS, we don't want to lose them out of the city of Detroit."

Detroit is a special case, but there are communities all over this state where traditional public school systems are losing popularity and the newer public schools, mostly chartered by colleges and universities, are gaining ground. Perhaps we all may need to rethink our concept of public education along these lines:

Supporting a particular school system or bureaucracy should no longer be the name of the game. Instead, we should be looking for and supporting the system of public education that best educates our kids, whatever that is, and however that may be.