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Snyder's plan to fix Detroit’s schools will fall on deaf legislative ears

Oct 20, 2015

Governor Rick Snyder yesterday unveiled his new plan to fix Detroit Public Schools. Actually, it is a variation on one he put forth in April. Like that plan, it seems heavily based on the model General Motors adopted to emerge from bankruptcy.

The schools would be divided into a “new” district and an “old” one.

The “old district” wouldn’t have anything to do with the kids, but would be saddled with paying down the district’s massive debts, now more than half a billion dollars. The “new” district would be run by a Detroit Education Commission and would be in charge of educating the students.

Educating, that is, not only the 40,000 or so left in the traditional public schools, but thousands more in city charters and the infamous Education Achievement Authority.

The plan depends on the conservative Republicans in the legislature agreeing to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars for Detroit Public Schools. The figure used was $715 million, but my guess is that it would be closer to a billion.

It relies on diverting $70 million a year from the state school aid fund for a decade, and also on another two hundred million, largely for what one official called “start-up costs.”

Now, you don’t have to be the world’s greatest political analyst to doubt that the legislature will go for this. Snyder hasn’t been able to get his fellow Republicans to agree to appropriate new money to fix the roads. To think they will agree to divert hundreds of millions to Detroit schools seems a big leap of faith. Most Republicans aren’t from Detroit. They seldom go to Detroit; they don’t get any votes from Detroit, they don’t look like people in Detroit, and largely regard it as a corrupt and alien landscape.

The governor presumably knows all that, but thinks he can sell his plan on the basis of common sense. He indicated that if the state doesn’t do this, Detroit Public Schools could default on its debts early next year. If the schools enter bankruptcy, the state would have to cover all its debts and retiree pension obligations, and that would mean billions.

I believe the governor is right about that. He is a skilled numbers man. But he is presuming rational behavior on the part of the lawmakers, and he’s forgetting that the same is true for the roads. The longer you wait to fix them, the more expensive the fix becomes.

Yet that hasn’t seemed to matter to the legislature. It’s hard for me to believe they will be more eager to help Detroit schools. There’s no doubt the state is at least partly responsible for this mess, by allowing an explosion of dubious charter schools, who drained revenue from the system.

But the best and most eloquent commentary on this came from the Detroit Free Press’s Rochelle Riley  this morning.

As she observed, this is another plan by and for and against competing groups of bureaucrats and politicians. It doesn’t have anything to do with the mission of the schools, namely, educating children.

In this case, educating children often from disadvantaged backgrounds where education is often not a priority. Riley concludes her column by saying, “Let’s start screaming. Somebody create a plan for children, not grown-ups.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more.

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.