Simone Lightfoot, an Ann Arbor school board member, recently resigned from a committee that will make recommendations about reforming Detroit’s schools and in doing so unleashed a searing critique of the high-powered group.
Describing the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren as rudderless, Lightfoot said in an interview with Bridge that with two weeks left until the group releases its findings, it has not begun to formulate the policy changes that it will recommend. Instead, members of the group have been urged by coalition leadership to make “broad, overarching and non-specific recommendations subject to broad interpretation” that support Gov. Rick Snyder’s pet projects ‒ charter schools and the Education Achievement Authority reform district, Lightfoot said, repeating assertions she first made on a Facebook post announcing her resignation on Friday.
She excoriated the nonprofits leading the coalition ‒ the Skillman Foundation and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan ‒ as being less than qualified to lead reform efforts.
“If you really want reform, you would have people leading this who are expert educators,” Lightfoot said. “The very ones who are shocked by the realities are making the decisions shaping the policies. That is frustrating.”
William Hanson, chief of staff for the Skillman Foundation, said the organization has a history and mission of supporting public schools in the city.
"Over the past 20 years it would be hard for me to believe any outside organization has supported Detroit Public Schools more than Skillman has," he said.
"The work the coalition has taken on is incredibly difficult. We are under tremendous time constraints to deliver comprehensive recommendations by the end of March and we appreciate all the hard work from dozens and dozens of Detroiters who've contributed to fact finding and brainstorming."
Path forward unclear
Coalition co-chairs Tonya Allen, Skillman’s president and CEO, and John Rakolta, CEO of Walbridge construction, have held media conference calls and hosted hundreds of parents and experts to testify about the schools since the group was formed in December. But the coalition has been reluctant to publicly discuss specifics of its work or the recommendations it plans to make.
Lightfoot says that may be partly due to the fact that some members still are unclear as to the actual mission and the educational outcomes that the coalition is seeking.
The coalition, comprised of roughly three dozen Detroit civic leaders, is scheduled to make recommendations to city and state elected officials “for large-scale shifts in Detroit’s broken education landscape.” The report is due out at a news conference on March 31. Gov. Snyder is expected to consider the recommendations to inform legislation to reform the city’s troubled schools, which include charter schools, Detroit Public Schools, and the EAA reform district.
But according to Lightfoot, a critic of Snyder’s education policies, little in the way of education policy or goals that would change the academic trajectory of Detroit students was presented during her time in the group.
Does the coalition seek higher graduation rates? Higher test scores? A new funding formula? “I don’t know,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not dumb people, and for us still to not be clear on this nuanced, moving thing, it was just telling.”
State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), co-chair of the policy subcommittee that Lightfoot served on, rejected the notion that the group is preordained to act as a cheerleader for the EAA and charter schools to appease the governor.
Gay-Dagnogo said she believes that recommendations will be more “conceptual” than specific, but will be impactful.
“There’s been real conversation, real debate, real experts,” she said. “The level of collaboration and the level of trust established by people who before this would not even sit in the same room but are now working...to have this difficult conversation, that gives me a level of confidence.”
Lightfoot posted her resignation on her Facebook page Friday. It quickly accumulated 450 shares and dozens of comments.
Lightfoot, a native of Detroit, was elected to the Ann Arbor school board in 2009, volunteers for the NAACP Detroit Branch on voter education issues and is head of regional urban initiatives for the National Wildlife Federation.
The policy subcommittee she served on was charged with using its weekly meetings for “evaluating the current education-related political and policy landscape while developing strategy and policy recommendations toward the goal of transforming education in Detroit.” However, with only four meetings left, the most significant action it handled was selecting a lobbyist to push for the coalition’s as-yet-formulated recommendations, according to Lightfoot.
“It got to the point that I didn’t want my name on it,” she said of the subcommittee’s work.
Lightfoot acknowledged that her recommendations ran counter to colleagues on the coalition, and certainly counter to Snyder’s vision of education reform. She has, for instance, urged a moratorium on allowing more charter schools to open and elimination of the controversial and academically troubled EAA.
Both Lightfoot and Dagnogo agreed that the coalition subcommittees are not privy to each other’s work, and the group’s 90-day time frame for making recommendations is challenging.
“As a former teacher, as a product of Detroit Public Schools, it is my desire that we maintain DPS and be able to move the academic achievement to a level they deserve,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “It is my desire that we look back on this and say we transformed our schools for our kids. We may not all agree, but the process has been meaningful and respectful and for that I’m optimistic.”
Bridge Magazine is convening partner for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC), comprised of five nonprofit media outlets focused on the city’s future after bankruptcy. The group includes Michigan Radio,WDET, Detroit Public Television and New Michigan Media. Support for the DJC comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism’s Michigan Reporting Initiative and the Ford Foundation.