We’ve had such a dearth of leadership in Michigan for so long that it seems amazing when you actually do see it. This is a state, after all, where nobody can seem to come up with a way to fix the roads, despite overwhelming public demand that they do so.
But last night, real leadership was on display in a high school auditorium in Detroit. Leadership doesn’t just mean displaying power — it means innovative solutions, and using that power to make them happen. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is a true leader.
You may not agree with all his ideas. You may have reservations about his methods, which have gotten him in trouble from time to time. But if you were in that auditorium last night or watched his hour-long presentation, you saw real leadership.
Crime isn’t the real barrier to the city’s comeback. Violent crime, especially murders, has fallen dramatically, in part thanks to Duggan's programs aimed at curtailing gangs and providing high-quality video surveillance.
The real problem is the Detroit public schools. Few parents are comfortable putting their kids in them. Test scores are abysmal; resources — including heat and toilet paper — often woefully inadequate. A majority of Detroit kids now attend charter schools or go to so-called schools of choice outside the city.
But thousands of other kids go to school in the suburbs, because their parents either moved out because of the schools, or never seriously considered moving into Detroit because they had children. Mayor Duggan has no direct authority over the schools.
Yet he knows how key they are to the city’s comeback — and how important it is that children, whose caregivers often have transportation problems, can get to school.
So during his state of the city address, Duggan proposed this: Establishing a unified school bus system to potentially service six Detroit public schools and five charters. Buses taking kids to and from school would move in a shared loop every day, so kids would get to see where all these schools are, and perhaps get some ideas if they want to change.
What’s more, the bus loop will include licensed day care centers where kids can go until their parents get off work, and where they can get homework help besides. Duggan is proposing splitting the costs of this equally between the city, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and philanthropy. It would be nice if the charters contributed too.
Additionally, the mayor said he would work together with the schools to form a committee that would produce a report card or a rating system for all the schools.
That could provide parents with invaluable information to help them decide where to send their children,
“If we can get DPS and the charters working together and collaborating, we can find good choice right here in the city,” Duggan said.
Find it, or create it. Mayors and governors commonly propose programs in their annual addresses, only to see nothing happen. That’s never been Duggan’s style.
This could be the beginning of a city-wide program to insure transparency and accountability in all public schools, conventional and charter.
“We’re going to start by saying to the children, we want you to stay,” the mayor began.
If he can make that happen, Mike Duggan really will have saved, or perhaps reinvented, Detroit.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.