IPPSR Panel Illuminates Detroit School Reform Issues

MIRS Newsletter (January 20, 2016) — With talk that the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) will run out of funds as early as April, today’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) panel discussion on Detroit Public Schools: Quality, Accountability, and Governance resulted in a packed house with panelists offering different takes on what troubles the state’s largest district.

Speaking first, Dan VARNER, chief executive officer of Excellent Schools Detroit, laid out the argument that education in Detroit has governance that is too splintered.

“Detroit doesn’t have one K-12 system,” Varner argued. “If you’re going to have a conversation about DPS, you need to have a conversation about the whole pubVarnerlic system.” He points out that he supports the concept of schools of choice, but that Detroit literally has 12 education providers, including Detroit Public Schools setting the course.

“Imagine 12 drivers on the road, they don’t all follow the same traffic rules,” said the former Michigan Board of Education member. “Could you imagine if all of us got back out on the street and drove whatever way we wanted to.”

Besides too many points of governance control in Detroit’s education system, Varner also argued that the district simply has way too much capacity.

“We’ve got way too many schools, by some estimates 30,000 more seats than kids,” he added. “That’s a ton of excess capacity.”

Varner argued in the end, it’s the number of actors within the system that allow bad actors to go on.

“There are bad actors in the school environment,” Varner noted. “Authorizers can behave badly, school leaders can behave badly. Who’s in charge of quality in this system? Nobody. Twelve separate systems.”

Gary NAEYAERT, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, was blunt in his assessment of why Detroit is in the mess it is in.

“We’re here just to remind you DPS has had a long and distinguished career of failure,” said Naeyaert. “Half of Detroit adults are functionally illiterate. Half of them have a high school degree. This means we are graduating people who simply can’t read. This has gone on for decades.”
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He added that for most of that the district was under the sole governance of a district with “initials DPS.”

“It must be because they don’t have any money?” he asked rhetorically. “Except for the $18,000 per pupil in revenue that is going to DPS that I tell you every other district in the state would love to have.

“This five-page report going back into the ’70s with all the efforts of reform and all the superintendents that have been run out of town by the entrenched interests,” he said. Naeyaert went on to note that the DPS has taken short-term debt and rolled it into long term.

From a performance aspect, Sarah RECKHOW, assistant professor, MSU Political Science and Education Policy Center Affiliate, noted that state takeovers of districts for financial reasons are often not successful.

“The big elephant in the room is the role of the state,” she said. “The role of the state in Detroit is dominant right now.” She added that state takeovers of districts often begin for the reasons of addressing financial issues, but then transform into tackling academic performance, as well.

“The idea is that these begin with the idea that they’ll end, but that doesn’t always happen very quickly,” she said, noting that a New Jersey takeover of Newark Public Schools has lasted two decades.

Reckhow said that financial recovery for districts taken over by states is a “mixed bag” with some recoveries. However, she said where the takeover is due to academic underperformance, state takeovers aren’t effective.

“Often, these type of state takeovers result in a certain amount of political turmoil and that is not conducive to academic improvement in many of these districts,” she said.

During this year’s discussion over the future of DPS and the financial predicament the district faces, some have suggested simply allowing the district to enter bankruptcy, much like the city of Detroit did.

Touching on that topic, Kristi BOWMAN, associated dean of MSU’s College of Law and an Education Policy Center Affiliate, argued that may not be the best course.

“Very few school districts have actually filed for and completed the process of bankruptcy,” she said. “The district has either filed for bankruptcy or gotten very close. Even setting aside the political side of all this, bankruptcy is not a very good local fit.”

Specifically, Bowman noted that Detroit spent $200 million in legal fees on it’s bankruptcy and asked, “do we really need to go there?”

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Click here to download GLEP’s PowerPoint presentation from the forum.