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Charters chafe at commission oversight in Detroit

MACKINAC ISLAND — Proponents of a nearly $720 million debt restructuring plan for Detroit Public Schools and lobbyists for Michigan’s charter schools agree that the city’s schools need to be more accountable when it comes to performance.

But they disagree that the proposed Detroit Education Commission, a citywide task force that would oversee public and charter schools in Detroit, is the vehicle to do it.

The proposed commission was the topic of a panel debate at this week’s Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. Panelists included John Rakolta Jr., chairman and CEO of Walbridge and a co-chairman of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren; and Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which lobbies on behalf of charter schools. Crain’s Detroit Business publisher Mary Kramer was the moderator.

The governance issue remains one of the biggest sticking points in the Legislature’s efforts to reduce the school district’s estimated $515 million in operating debt.

A plan the Senate approved in March — the one favored by Gov. Rick Snyder, Rakolta and the Detroit schools' coalition and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, among them — would give Detroit’s mayor authority to appoint a commission with the power to decide where to open and close schools.

The Senate’s plan also would split DPS into two districts. The existing district would exist until the debt is repaid, while a new Detroit Community School District would be created to handle teaching and all other operations.

The House, meanwhile, approved a separate package favored by Michigan’s charter school industry, which does not include the commission. It also includes tougher language aimed at stopping teacher sick-outs that have made headlines in recent months.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) has said he worries the commission would restrict charter schools. The House stayed in session in Lansing this week to work on issues including DPS and the 2017 fiscal year budget.

Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said via email that lawmakers are close to an agreement on the DPS legislation, and Cotter’s stance on the DEC hasn’t changed. He would not disclose details of the talks.

Quisenberry said charter authorizers’ opposition stems almost entirely from the commission concept, which he called an expansion of city authority into public school management.

“It’s additional governance, not new governance,” Quisenberry told an audience during the Wednesday morning session, hosted by the Detroit-based The Skillman Foundation.

Afterward, he told Crain’s and Bridge in an interview: “What I have confidence in is it will interject a different level of politics” into K-12 education, given that its members will be politically appointed and the fact that its merits are being argued.

Michigan already has a state school reform office to close schools, he said, and that office could work with charter authorizers — commonly public universities — to open new ones.

Yet concern about the DEC is misplaced, Rakolta said, given the fact that the Senate bill also limits it to a five-year time frame with the possibility of a five-year extension.

“It’s basically an experiment,” Rakolta said, who said the commission is necessary to improve academic outcomes for all students, regardless of whether they attend a public or charter school.

Rakolta said no one has offered a viable alternative that could reach the same school performance results without the commission in place. He prefers the Senate legislation, introduced by Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart.

If it doesn’t pass, Rakolta said he predicts “enormous student loss this October” and policymakers will continue to be debating Detroit schools’ restructuring next year.

"This is just a delay tactic," he said. "We need to fix this, and we need to fix it now.”

Hansen, who offered closing remarks, said the commission’s real purpose is to create a master plan that can make sure K-12 schools exist in Detroit neighborhoods that need them into the future.

He urged policymakers to come to consensus.

“We need good schools. We need opportunity, and we need to get this debt out of the way so that everybody can be successful,” Hansen said. “This is not about charters. This is not about DPS. And we need to quit having these adult arguments” and make sure kids get the education they need, he said.

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