Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
I care deeply about the state of public education in Michigan. I have as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s because my mom was a public school teacher for 41 years, or because my grandmother was a public school teacher for 35 years—I’m not exactly sure. However, I do know that my support for public schools, public school teachers, and the idea of free public education will always be a part of who I am.
Without question, the Detroit Public Schools (“DPS”) legislation passed by the Michigan Senate is a whole lot better than the DPS legislation passed by the Michigan House of Representatives. Unlike the House plan, which would provide $72 million per year for seven years to fund the local portion of New DPS’s foundation allowance, the Senate plan would provide $72 million per year for ten years to fund the local portion of the foundation allowance. And whereas the House plan would loan the district $33 million for start-up costs, the Senate plan would loan the district at least $200 million for start-up expenses.
The Senate plan has other selling points, too. For example, unlike the House plan, the Senate package would not cancel collective bargaining agreements upon transition from the current DPS to New DPS, would not require the gubernatorially appointed Financial Review Commission to approve the hiring of New DPS’s superintendent (although it would require the Financial Review Commission to approve the hiring of New DPS’s chief financial officer), would not allow noncertified/nonendorsed individuals to “teach” in New DPS classrooms, would not link the salaries of newly hired teachers to annual performance evaluations, and would not prohibit New DPS from considering seniority and advanced academic degrees in the determination of teacher compensation.
To reiterate, the Senate legislation is much better than the House legislation. Nevertheless, the Senate plan contains several provisions that leave me wondering why any public school teacher (or anyone else who cares about locally controlled public education) should support it. These provisions also leave me wondering about the recent onslaught of e-mails, MoveOn.org petitions, and other communications from the American Federation of Teachers urging Detroit educators to support the plan in its present form. Surely the union’s national organization is smart enough to know that this is a plan in need of improvement.
OUTSOURCING OF EDUCATIONAL FUNCTIONS
For starters, the Senate plan contains language that would amend Sec. 11a of the Revised School Code to permit any school district in Michigan—including New DPS—to outsource all educational functions, including the operation of schools, to “another public entity, including, but not limited to, another school district or an intermediate school district.” Charter schools, more technically known as public school academies, would almost certainly qualify as “public entit[ies]” within the meaning of this language. The plan would also amend Sec. 501 and Sec. 502 of the Revised School Code to expand the powers of school boards to authorize their own charter schools. In other words, if the Senate plan is ultimately enacted, Michigan law would expressly allow any school district to authorize its own district-wide charter, and then to contract away all of its core educational functions to that charter school.
This problem could be rectified by simply deleting the words “another public entity, including, but not limited to,” and leaving only “another school district or an intermediate school district.” I understand why this language was originally included—to allow certain constituent districts to contract with neighboring school districts or their ISDs to provide educational services. But by eliminating the words “another public entity,” and leaving in place the textual reference to other school districts and ISDs only, it would still be possible to achieve the desired objective of providing options for small constituent districts without opening the floodgates to the possibility of mass charterization of entire school systems.
FINANCIAL REVIEW COMMISSION
Like the House plan, the Senate plan would extend the oversight reach of the Financial Review Commission, established under Michigan’s Financial Review Commission Act, to the budget and financial affairs of New DPS. The membership of the Financial Review Commission would be expanded from 9 to 11, and would include the New DPS superintendent and the chairperson of the New DPS school board. However, a majority of the Financial Review Commission would consist of members appointed directly by the governor. The Financial Review Commission, chaired by the state treasurer, would have the power to implement accounting practices, modify budgets, recommend changes to employee benefits and compensation, approve collective bargaining agreements, appoint New DPS’s chief financial officer, and approve or reject the issuance of new debt. It makes me wonder whether the senators who drafted and voted for the plan genuinely support the restoration of local control as much as they claim. Perhaps the sections of the bill that create these new powers for the Financial Review Commission can be amended to provide the New DPS school board additional local control over the district’s finances.
DETROIT EDUCATION COMMISSION
The Senate plan would create an education commission (commonly referred to as the “Detroit Education Commission” or “DEC”) with the power to control the siting of new schools in the City of Detroit—both traditional public schools and charter schools—for at least five years (and perhaps ten). The DEC would be composed of seven members appointed by the mayor of Detroit; the mayor would be required to appoint two individuals with experience as teachers or administrators in a traditional public school, two individuals with experience as teachers or administrators in a charter school, one parent of a traditional public school pupil, one parent of a charter school pupil, and one person with “expertise in public school accountability systems and school improvement.” Only five of the seven DEC members would be required to live in the City of Detroit.
The DEC would be responsible for determining which areas of the City of Detroit already have enough schools, and which areas of the City of Detroit need more schools. The DEC would establish certain priority zones in which additional schools are needed, and would be authorized to provide financial incentives to persuade new schools (both traditional and charter) to open in these zones.
The DEC would also be authorized to assess the academic quality of New DPS and prepare reports and recommendations concerning facilities, enrollment, building use, student proficiency and growth, graduation rates, and other matters pertaining to the community district. Subject to very limited exceptions, neither the New DPS school board nor a charter school authorizer would be permitted to open a new school in the City of Detroit without the DEC’s prior approval.
Further, the DEC would be required to work with the State School Reform/Redesign Officer to implement an “A through F” letter grading system for all schools—both traditional public schools and charter schools—in the City of Detroit. Letter grades would be based on graduation rates, pupil scores on standardized tests, absenteeism rates, and certain other “nonacademic measures.” Letter grades would be used to determine which schools are “failing,” to order school closures and the implementation of “intervention models,” and to force all existing schools in Detroit to compete against one another for pupil enrollment and state aid.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m not a huge fan of charter schools. However, if charter schools are going to remain a piece of the education mix in the City of Detroit—and it looks like they are, at least for the time being—why should an individual like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have all the power to determine which charter schools will be allowed to open in the city and which ones won’t? All charter schools that meet the necessary state requirements should be allowed to compete equally with one another for a place in the Detroit market. After all, isn’t competition one of the original ideas underlying the charter school movement?
I definitely support the creation of some kind of neutral mechanism for overseeing charters, perhaps even statewide. But the mayor of Detroit is certainly not neutral when it comes to charter schools and the ones that he supports. Fundamentally, I believe the power to recommend the placement and siting of new schools in Detroit should be vested in the New DPS school board alone, not a mayor-appointed commission with broad powers and little accountability to the people. But on a more realistic note, I would rather have no school-siting commission at all than a DEC that will pick and choose between competing schools on the basis of politics and cronyism. I believe the Senate should remove the language creating the DEC and simply leave the landscape as it is with respect to the siting of new schools in Detroit.
There’s one other thing about the DEC that makes me ill at ease. It strikes me that the proposed Detroit Education Commission is really just an extension of the “Detroit Future City” model; it would have the authority to facilitate investment and the building of new schools in certain favored neighborhoods, and also to facilitate disinvestment and the removal of resources from poorer, disfavored neighborhoods. Is it really wise for the Legislature to bestow upon the mayor of Detroit this kind of unchecked power to choose winners and losers?
STATE SCHOOL REFORM/REDESIGN OFFICE
Lastly, I’m troubled by the new powers that the Senate plan would give to the State School Reform/Redesign Office (“SRRO”) and the School Reform/Redesign Officer.
The SRRO came into existence when Governor Jennifer Granholm signed 2009 PA 204 in January 2010, requiring the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to identify the “lowest achieving 5% of all public schools in the state” and to place those schools into a statewide reform district (not to be confused with the Detroit-specific reform district known as the “Education Achievement Authority” or “EAA”). The law created the new position of School Reform/Redesign Officer to manage the statewide reform district, and authorized the School Reform/Redesign Officer to appoint CEOs to take control of individual schools. The School Reform/Redesign Officer, and any CEO appointed by him or her under the statute, has broad authority to displace local school boards and superintendents, assume all powers of a financially troubled school’s existing administration, exercise control over all expenditures and financial decisions of the school, cancel or terminate contracts, alter collective bargaining agreements, and implement school “intervention models” including the closure of buildings.
The SRRO remained under the supervision of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, just where the Legislature had placed it, until Governor Rick Snyder moved it out of the Department of Education by Executive Order 2015-9 last spring. The SRRO and statewide reform district—which still possess all the powers described above—are now housed in the Department of Technology, Management & Budget, where they are overseen by a direct appointee of the governor.
As has been widely reported, the Senate plan would direct New DPS to withdraw from the EAA by a certain date and would thereafter terminate the EAA altogether. In addition, the Senate plan would remove the state-appointed emergency manager from DPS, and would purport to return authority to a locally elected school board. Both of these changes would appear largely illusory, however, because the Senate plan would give new, additional authority to the School Reform/Redesign Officer, who would essentially act as a successor to both the state-appointed emergency manager and the EAA with many of the very same powers. If our legislators want to prove that they’re serious about returning control to a locally elected school board in Detroit, they should roll back the powers that this plan would confer upon the School Reform/Redesign Officer.
I will say it one more time: Yes, the Senate plan is better than the House plan. It would loan more money to the district for start-up expenses and allow the New DPS school board to hire a superintendent of its own choosing. It would not punish educators in the same way as the House proposal, and would not allow the use of noncertified/nonendorsed “teachers.” Finally, at least as currently envisioned, the Senate plan would provide state funding to backfill the local portion of the district’s foundation allowance for just a bit longer, giving the Old DPS a little more time to pay off the operating debt. Even so, the Senate plan still has a long way to go.
I continue to have several significant concerns about the Senate plan, most notably those described above, and simply cannot support it as written. However, with some tweaking and a few critical amendments, I think I could live with the Senate proposal. Heck, I might even learn to like it. While I have been very critical of our state legislators over the years, I must admit that there are a number of decent, honest, and reasonable people serving in Lansing. Perhaps there’s enough time remaining on the legislative clock to convince these men and women of good will to take another look at the Senate plan, make a few changes, and do what’s right for public education and local control.