Reform school lessons 

Class was in session last Friday. The subject was public school reform and the future of the Detroit district. The grades aren’t in.

Wayne State University’s State Policy Center sponsored the conference on the experiences of the handful of cities around the country where school takeovers have taken place.

Held at the David Adamany Undergraduate Library at Wayne State, the highly publicized event drew only about 40 people, including the man for whom the library is named, former WSU President and current Detroit Public Schools CEO David Adamany. However, with the exception of board co-chair Freman Hendrix, none of the reform board members showed up.

Among the speakers was Northwestern University professor Fred Hess, who pointed out differences in the efforts instituted by Michigan Gov. John Engler and the state Legislature as compared to the approach taken in Chicago, which he is involved in monitoring.

In Detroit, Mayor Dennis Archer appointed the reform board, which in turn chose Adamany to head the district. In Chicago, mayors have been appointing school board members for four decades, said Hess. In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the schools from the board citing a $350 million deficit and the fact that more than 40 percent of high school students were dropping out. Detroit did not have a budget deficit, but the high school dropout rate is just above 50 percent.

"There is a big difference," said Hess, "between a mayor-appointed board and mayoral control." If Chicago schools don’t improve, the mayor is held accountable, he said.

Hess also said that the Illinois legislation restrained unions. Chicago public school employees were legally prohibited from striking for 18 months; unions can only bargain over wages and benefits, not working conditions such as class size, and there is no grievance process for workers displaced through privatization. In contrast, union issues were not addressed when Detroit’s elected school board was replaced earlier this year.

"I think the legislation in Chicago is far more dramatic than here in Detroit," said Hess.

As for results: between 1995 and 1999, test scores in math and reading among a wide range of students increased significantly when compared with the national average.

For example, in 1995, 26.5 percent of third through eighth graders scored above the national average for reading; the number rose to 36 percent in 1999. For math, 29.8 percent of these students tested above the national average in 1995 and 43.6 percent in 1999.

Dropout rates improved only slightly, with 43 percent of the student body dropping out in 1995 compared to 41.7 percent in 1998.

But Wellesley College professor Richard Wilbur, an expert on educational reform, said there is no general evidence that appointing a reform school board improves student performance.

"It remains to be seen that reform boards do better than elected boards," said Wilbur. "All research shows that they have no more insight than elected boards."

He also said that unions and school board staff prevent true school reform because they merely want to perpetuate the status quo and their own power.

Others spoke about reform efforts in Boston, Cleveland and Baltimore.

Detroit board co-chair and Deputy Mayor Hendrix said that some speakers dismissed leadership as important in reforming schools. "I happen to think in this instance we have an unprecedented form of governance that cannot be compared to any place else. I believe leadership does matter," said Hendrix.

Peter Eisinger is the director of WSU’s State Policy Center and organized the conference. Eisinger said that the seminar left him wondering whether true reform and strong unions are compatible.

"It was clear in Chicago that reform undercut union power and didn’t (do so) in Detroit. I think one of the questions is: Can we make reform and unions, work together?" he said. "I am pessimistic after this conference in thinking that it can."

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