House passes DPS legislation, critics say bills will cripple already struggling district

Jun 3, 2016 at 12:38 pm
The Michigan House of Representatives passed a package of Detroit Public Schools bills late Thursday in a close vote (55-53) that just manage d to squeak by. 

The package — which looks very similar to previous iterations of the House legislation —  now heads to the Senate for a vote. 

Under the bills, DPS will be divided into two districts: Old DPS, which is responsible for paying off the district's debt, and the "Detroit Community Schools" district, which is responsible for educating students.

The Detroit Community Schools district will receive a transitional loan of $150 million, to be used for teachers, vendors, financial services, and cash flow needs (only $25 million can be used for building maintenance and improvement) and additionally, it will be given funds to deal with its debt, which currently hovers at $467 million (though it will now grow to $617 million when including the transitional loan).

Under the plan, local property taxes, typically earmarked for students (known as per pupil funding) will be used by the "Old DPS" for debt payment, and in order to close any funding gaps from this redirection, the new district will be given $72 million a year. The House plan caps this amount, which comes from tobacco settlement proceeds, at $617 million (i.e. 8 1/2 years). This leaves some concerned about how DPS will survive down the line, since it's estimated that it will take the district about 10 years to pay off its operating debt. 

"It is simply unclear how New DPS would survive after 8 1/2 years — the point in time when the annual $72-million payments would run out under the amended House bills," writes Nick Krieger, a constitutional law attorney who has been focusing on the current legislative plans for Detroit on his blog Fix the Mitten. "It appears to me that the Michigan House of Representatives — by refusing to provide a full 10 years worth of funding for New DPS, even though New DPS will not be able to raise its own operating revenue for 10 years — has designed its plan to intentionally cripple the new district." 

Another component of the bill that raises questions about the district's future is a clause that allows the district to outsource its superintendent — essentially letting another school district absorb DPS. 

In addition to opening up a gray area when it comes to the future of the district, the bills are notable for being more harsh on its teachers. 

The House's Putting Students First plan allows the district — and only DPS — to hire non-certified individuals to teach in the district's classrooms — a move that has been criticized for de-professionalizing the field. It also kicks off a merit pay system for any new teachers in the district, and only in the Detroit district. A companion bill includes penalties for striking teachers. One of the only wins for the teachers is the fact that the House did not keep its controversial amendment that would have banned collective bargaining. 

"I’m disappointed. You had an opportunity to write history that put children first, not politics," state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said last night. "Teachers feel they’re left behind and being treated like second-class citizens."

The vote, which was incredibly close, ran along party lines, with all but eight Republicans voting in favor of the package and zero Democrats voting yes.

One particularly terse part of the legislative debate centered around the Detroit Education Commission, a coalition that would oversee the opening and closing of schools in the city. The commission was not included in the House bill. The controversial coalition has earned the ire of charter school advocates, who believe the board — which would have been appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan — would be too politicized and ultimately hinder charter school growth. While some public school advocates have also been critical of the coalition, taking issue with the fact that it lacks democratic accountability, the reality is the lack of any DEC means many of Detroit's competition issues (issues that have led to this very scenario of insolvency) remain. 

"We only asked for two major things: pay the DPS debt that state appointees rung up, and for some type of commission that provides real accountability for taxpayer funded schools," said Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, who believes the bills work in favor of the city's poorly regulated charter schools. "This isn't accountability. It’s a joke."

Democrats have also pointed out what they believe to be a "loophole" in the legislation, which would allow persistently failing charters to stay open. Under the legislation, if a DPS school is deemed a failure the State School Reform Office would decide how it wants to "turn it around" (there are four options, two of which include turning the school into a charter and closing it). How to handle failing charter schools, however, is up to the school's authorizer; and according to the house legislation, the sponsor can keep the school open if it is "undergoing reconstitution." This somewhat vague term raised a number of question — namely what constitutes as "reconstitution." Charter advocates says "reconstitution" requires serious changes on the part of the school, but dems believe this clause will allow failing charters to go unchecked and remain open. 

"Some of the changes that were made to this bill would force the closure of traditional public schools but allow failing charter schools to continue to operate indefinitely," House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, told the Detroit News after Thursday’s vote.

Unsurprisingly, charter school advocates were pleased with the lack of a regulating board such as the DEC in the House legislation. 

"Despite efforts by some of the elites and big city bosses who believe they know what is best for children, it is a time-honored truth that parents and families are best at choosing educational opportunities that best meet their needs of their children," Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a DeVos-funded charter advocacy program, told the Free Press

This sentiment was reiterated by Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, who stated Thursday: "This is a plan put forward to save education in Detroit and at the same time avoid what would be a disastrous bankruptcy. It protects taxpayers and makes sure this system stays sound for years to come."

Cotter has received over $20,000 from the pro-charter lobby, including $12,500 from the union adverse, pro-charter DeVos family. As we reported last month, the DeVos family is incredibly invested in the House legislation.

This overwhelming support for the legislation by competitors of the traditional school district raises questions about the end goals, and also how the pro-charter lobby may have influenced the vote and ultimate outcome for the district. 

"The House bill in its current form is a stop-gap measure that does the bare minimum to address the issues the school district faces," John Grover, who wrote Loveland's recent report A School District in Crisis: Detroit Public Schools 1842-2015, tells MT. "Increasing oversight over DPS schools and teachers while removing the DEC and similar provisions for charter schools sets a disturbing precedent."

This post has been updated.