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As some take aim at school choice, Legislature is unlikely to agree

The latest round in the education wars may be about to start in the Michigan Legislature in a fight over Michigan’s 20-year-old school choice system.

For decades, Detroit had only the Detroit Public Schools to provide public school education to Detroit residents. It served as a well-respected urban district until its dramatic financial and academic decline. School officials, teacher unions, community groups and many parents continued efforts to maintain the DPS as the monopoly public school provider.

That all changed in 1993 when Michigan’s massive Proposal A statewide education reforms introduced choice and competition in public education, including:

  • Authorizing charter public schools to compete with DPS.
  • Allowing Detroit residents to attend adjacent districts.
  • Creating a “per-pupil allowance,” permitting a pupil to take state school operating funds to the school the pupil selects.

The Michigan Legislature, constitutionally charged with establishing the public school system, set forth its parent-centric choice policy in the Revised School Code:

“It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children. The public schools of this state serve the needs of the pupils by cooperating with the pupil's parents and legal guardians to develop the pupil's intellectual capabilities and vocational skills in a safe and positive environment.”

This was all designed to improve educational outcomes and to increase educational options for pupils and parents. In Detroit, a robust system of charter schools expanded, which now enroll half of Detroit’s public school students.

But school choice in Detroit has not worked as originally intended. DPS is now widely recognized as an unfixable entity. Even more disturbing is the fact that the system of charter schools in Detroit has not turned the corner on student achievement.

As Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, has said, “The city’s education system as a whole is failing its students.”

The state Board of Education found last December that Michigan is now in the bottom tier of states in academic achievement, and other states are racing past us in improving student performance.

If Proposal A school choice was an education revolution, the counterrevolution is about to start. The Detroit education elites seem to have coalesced around a series of concepts that will restore monopoly control over Detroit schools to a single official or a selected group of leaders.

Leading the campaign is Excellent Schools Detroit, a private organization dedicated to improving school outcomes in Detroit. The political clout of the effort is reflected in its organization of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, self-defined as a “diverse cross-section of leaders representing Detroit’s education, civic, philanthropic, business, religious and community sectors.”

Excellent Schools Detroit is clear in its desire to end school choice by blaming the present “fractured system, which creates instability, hyper-competition, and uneven authorizing” for Detroit’s failing schools. Its report feeds the anti-charter mood by claiming “bad actors in the charter school systems can profit from behaving in a predatory way.”

Their goal: “Assign one person or office to become the traffic controller – one person who will be publicly accountable for managing the portfolio of school systems and overseeing the quality of the entire scope of schools in the city.”

We have seen what happened when we have one group – the DPS – managing all the schools in Detroit.

The buzz phrase to watch is “fragmented school systems.” The goal is to replace a school choice model with a centralized, top-down command and control system not unlike to old DPS monopoly model. Centralized enrollment and centralized transportation would be linked to a monopoly authorizer of schools, reducing or eliminating diversity of schools and options for parents.

Philanthropist Eli Broad, a former Detroiter and strong proponent of improving Detroit schools, is quoted in Crain’s Detroit Business as supporting a plan “which would coordinate enrollment, safety, transportation and other common infrastructure for all public schools in the city, including charters.”

The Democratic majority on the State Board of Education supports eliminating school choice by imposing a “certificate of need” process in Detroit “where charters and choice making are most prevalent.”

Excellent Schools Detroit CEO Dan Varner wants a single official to play more of a central role in education, with an ability to open and close schools (including charters). This approach is directly contrary to existing state policy giving public universities a role in opening and closing diverse charter schools.

The Detroit education elites focusing on eliminating real school choice may face a challenge in the Michigan Legislature. Many leaders in the Republican-controlled House and Senate have been strong supporters of parent choice and charter schools. And they represent a statewide system of state public universities charged by the Legislature with authorizing charter schools throughout the state, including Detroit.

The anti-choice forces would do to remember that the Michigan Supreme Court, in upholding Michigan’s charter school law, stated:

“The Legislature has had the task of defining the form and the institutional structure through which public education is delivered in Michigan since the time Michigan became a state.”

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