Politics and Prejudices: Think again about Snyder's school plan

May 6, 2015 at 1:00 am

Let's be honest about something: The last time an elected school board got any notice in Detroit, it was when it was discovered that the board's president, one Otis Mathis, was functionally illiterate. As in, couldn't write a coherent sentence.

That, however, wasn't enough to get his fellow board members to ask him to resign. That didn't happen until 2010, when he repeatedly masturbated in front of Teresa Gueyser, the then-superintendent of schools.

Even after that, his fellow board member, the Rev. David Murray, defended his carrot-cuffing colleague. "He's a young man," he said. "Maybe he didn't know it was offensive to her."

Well, true, Mathis was only ... 55 at the time.

No, you couldn't make this stuff up. Prior to that, the board mainly just did stuff like hire an endless succession of superintendents (think Connie Calloway) at huge salaries, and then fire them after a year and a half, giving them, of course, large amounts of severance pay.

So you can see that there are reasons for a certain reluctance on the part of even rabid believers in democracy to be enthusiastic about committing what kids remain in DPS to the tender mercies of an elected board.

However, since then, a succession of emergency managers, from Bob Bobb to the present what's-his-name, have failed to stem the rise of deficits of the flight of kids.

But when I heard that Gov. Rick Snyder was coming out with a plan to fix the schools, I didn't expect to be impressed. His "Educational Achievement Authority," better known as the EAA, was, especially in its first years, a clumsy failure.

Snyder's agency to fix Detroit's worst-performing schools was mainly notable for hiring a clown of a superintendent named John Covington, who was paid $325,000 a year to be squired around in a chauffeur-driven limousine and attend conferences in Las Vegas. Test scores, of course, did not improve. Things have seemed to get better somewhat since Covington was fired and replaced with Veronica Conforme.

However, based on this episode, there was ample reason for the sphincters to tighten at the sound of the words "Snyder's plan to fix Detroit schools."

But last week I was frankly surprised.

Though you wouldn't know it from the immediate reaction, the governor came out with what seems a reasonable and innovative solution that is better than anything else I've seen. No, it doesn't solve all the problems.

Nothing will. As a young charter school teacher once asked me, "How do you teach a kid whose mother is a hooker, and he lives in the back seat of her car, and is always hungry?"

Here's what Snyder is proposing: He wants to divide Detroit Public Schools into two separate entities, in a way that reminds me of bankrupt General Motors.

The students — now about 47,000 — would be transferred to a new "City of Detroit Education District." The debt — now nearly half a billion dollars — would stay with Detroit Public Schools, which would still get what millage money comes in.

The goal would be to pay down and eliminate the deficit, after which DPS would presumably cease to exist.

Ah, but what would the new education district do for money? Well, while Snyder may be the man everyone wants to hate, he did say something that was too little noticed: Back in March, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren made sweeping recommendations for reforming the schools, ideas that were largely sneered at or ignored. For one thing, they said the state was to blame for much of the schools' debt, and Lansing should assume some of the burden.

Snyder, to his credit, agreed. Part of his plan involves asking the legislature to contribute about $72 million a year until the old DPS debt is finally retired. In the meantime, his new "education district" would run on that, and the basic foundation grant allocated for every public school kid in the state.

Getting the legislature to approve that won't be easy; within hours, his fellow Republicans were moaning about "Detroit fatigue," shorthand for "we've already spent too much money to bail out shiftless blacks."

Snyder did something else too. As part of this, he offered a route for the schools to return to control by an elected board. Under his plan, the elected board of education would still be there for now, but would only be over the old DPS.

There would be a new seven-member Detroit Education Commission over both traditional and charter schools in Detroit, with four members appointed by the governor, and three by the mayor. (Few noticed that Snyder, apparently for the first time, conceded that Detroit charters aren't doing the job either.)

However, this plan does something else surprising:

It calls for a gradual, but fairly speedy, return of power to an elected board, starting with two members next November. Within six years, the entire commission would be elected.

The commission, by the way, would hire a "Detroit education manager," who would be in charge of academics and some other functions, like managing an enrollment system.

Perfect plan? Maybe not. But what is? Annoyingly, nobody seemed willing to give Snyder any credit for going out on a limb to put together a creative solution.

Demonstrators on both the left and the right began yelling against the plan the day it came out ... before they had any idea what was in it, much less read and thought about it.

Teachers hurt their own cause by skipping school that day and driving to Lansing to protest something they didn't understand. Kids were out in downtown Detroit holding signs saying things like "Stop the Snyder plan," even though it was clear they didn't have a clue what it was.

That night, I decided that I'd acquire my prejudices the old-fashioned way, by reading — and thinking — for myself.

As I read it, I kept thinking, well, hey, what's wrong with this? The next morning I felt partly vindicated; the editorial pages of both Detroit's papers, the conservative News and semi-liberal Free Press, thought the plan made sense.

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan issued an oddly vehement rejection, saying it wasn't his plan and he didn't want anything to do with it. That might have been partly political ass-covering. There's lots of posturing.

But the bottom line is that at least the governor has offered a plan that would eliminate the schools' deficit and would seem to ensure some accountability.

By the way, I didn't vote for Snyder. He lost me forever after he signed the bill allowing special interests to hide their campaign contributions. He's not my pal.

But we owe it to ourselves to keep our minds open to decent ideas, wherever they come from. Or, well, we'll have what we have now ... and how's that working for you?

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.