What can be done to keep Detroit Public Schools from sinking further?

Righting the ship

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"Journey for Justice (J4J) is an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 cities across the country: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Eupora, MS, Hartford, Los Angeles, Newark, Patterson, Camden, Jersey City and Elizabeth NJ, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Wichita," according to the group's website. "All of our members are base-building organizations pushing back and demanding community-driven alternatives to the privatization of and dismantling of public schools systems."

Policy and politics

"The portfolio district model rests on a metaphor in which district managers are expected to monitor school performance much like investors manage assets in an investment portfolio," according to a white paper written last year by Michigan State University's Mary L. Mason and David Arsen. "The portfolio may consist of a diverse mix of schools (for-profit and nonprofit contract schools, charter schools, or autonomous traditional district schools). District managers are expected to intervene regularly to weed out below-average performing schools and to actively recruit new providers and then hold them accountable for student performance."

Looking ahead, the report by Mason and Arsen pointed out that important questions still need to be addressed:

"The specific character of a portfolio district is not predetermined, but turns rather on countless features of policy design and implementation. Those choices will determine whether any new educational regime better serves the interests of so many Detroit families who have long endured poverty, segregation, and discrimination.

"How will the new regime assure that Detroit families, like their counterparts in more affluent Michigan communities, can lodge their preferences regarding their neighborhood schools as citizens, not just consumers? How will it promote the professionalism of teaching in Detroit schools, such that it becomes an attractive career choice for talented and committed teachers? How will it make the most of an historic opportunity to promote racial and social class integration in the schools of the nation's most segregated city?"

Whatever recommendations the coalition makes, it will be up to the governor and the Legislature to decide what changes are actually made. At this point, returning power to the democratically elected board — something that was supposed to be a goal of emergency management once the financial ship had been stabilized — doesn't appear to be even a remote possibility.

Detroit's elected school board, which has steadfastly fought emergency management, recently voted unanimously to oppose the establishment of a portfolio system. In their view, the board should determine how Detroit's public schools are run. That's what they were elected to do.

But, stripped of all power by the governor's appointees, the board's vote has no actual effect. It can't even get the same internal financial reports the emergency manager is freely turning over to the coalition, School Board member Lamar Lemmons said at a recent meeting.

A former state legislator, Lemmons chose to participate in the coalition, sitting on its governance committee — despite what he said are deep concerns about how the coalition is structured.

"There is a lot of conflict of interest," he says, noting that a number of the nonprofit organizations participating in the effort receive funding from the Skillman Foundation.

There are also business interests, including the construction company Walbridge. The company led a joint venture that contracted with the district to build seven new schools and renovate eight others, using $505 million in bond money approved by Detroit voters in 2009.

Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. says that's the only contract his 100-year old privately held company has ever had with DPS, that the job was obtained through a bidding process, and that there are no plans to build yet more schools.

In short, he sees no conflict. If there was, he says, he'd recuse himself.

What he does see, said Rakolta, is a lot of diverse opinion and vigorous debate among coalition members.

That perspective is echoed by other coalition members interviewed for this article, including union leader Hecker and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a former middle-school science teacher in Detroit elected to the state House last year.

Gay-Dagnogo says she had her doubts at first, but has been encouraged by what she described as "a real openness to look at viable solutions, not just rubber-stamping."

Reform or fail

Up to this point, most of the reporting around the coalition's work has focused on governance. Will the mayor be involved in running the district, or in choosing those who will?

Last week, Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, citing two confidential sources, reported that the coalition is weighing two scenarios: one for a fully appointed board and the other for a hybrid of elected and appointed members.

Lemmons says that no consensus has been reached by coalition members regarding how the district should be governed. A proposal is expected to be provided to the mayor, governor and state Legislature by the end of this month.

It's important to point out that, in terms of governance, some of what's being discussed has already been tried and rejected. In 1999, as a result of action taken by the state Legislature and Gov. John Engler, the elected school board was removed from power and replaced by a seven-person board, with six members appointed by then-Mayor Dennis Archer and the state superintendent of public education serving as the seventh member.

Five years later, after the appointed board took a $100 million surplus and turned it into a $200 million deficit, Detroiters overwhelming voted to have an elected board put back in charge of running the district.

Throughout all these changes, underlying issues that have pulling the district down were not addressed.

For her part, Skillman leader Allen says that while governance is a critical issue, it's also vital that the coalition look at more than that and come up with ways to address many of the structural issues plaguing the district.

"I think it is both issues," says Allen. "We have managerial problems, and we have structural problems."

The coalition is working on a number of proposals intended to address those issues, from the disproportionate burden that educating special needs students places on the district to how best to deal with the debt that is siphoning away funds that would otherwise be going into the classroom.

The clear lesson from the past two decades is that changing the way Detroit Public Schools is managed without addressing the profound problems facing the district is an effort that's doomed to fail.

As Peter Hammer makes clear:

"An accurate diagnosis of the problem is essential for effective policy reform. DPS's core problems are structural and financial in nature, not issues of governance."

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan.
His work
is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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