Bill Schuette, Gretchen Whitmer push for bus fixes to help Detroit schools

teacher in classroom

Kids in Detroit switch schools twice as much as suburban kids in search for quality. That hurts test scores. Michigan’s candidates for governor suggest funding for transportation, a better school-rating system and other changes.

November 6: Gretchen Whitmer projected winner in Michigan governor race

Michigan’s candidates for governor are pledging to improve transportation to address rampant school transfers that contribute to low test scores in Detroit.

One day after an investigation by Bridge Magazine and Chalkbeat found 1 in 3 Detroit elementary students switched schools every year, candidates Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday said their education plans could help.

In 2015-16, nearly 60 percent of Detroit kids -  50,000 students - were enrolled in two or more schools, with some possibly changing schools and then changing back, only to see test scores fall. It’s a situation compounded by a plethora of charter schools and competition from suburbs, but also family instability, poverty and frustration with the city’s traditional schools.

Asked about solutions, both Schuette, a Republican, and Whitmer, a Democrat, pointed to more money for busing.

Transportation is viewed by educators as essential to addressing student mobility, since Wayne State University research has found that 40 percent of students who switched schools in Detroit moved to a different ZIP code.

Better busing would mean that, if their parents moved, students wouldn’t have to switch schools.

Two years ago, school advocates proposed a unified transportation system in Detroit to serve charter and public schools but it was shot down. Earlier this year, a pilot program backed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan began offering bus service to 10 traditional and charter schools in northwest Detroit.

Schuette wants scholarships

Schuette, who is now attorney general, has been a proponent of schools of choice and charters throughout his decades-long political career.

He reiterated that support on Wednesday, when asked by Bridge and Chalkbeat how he’d address frequent school mobility.

“The ability to shop around, the ability to choose, the ability to go to a different school, forces others to improve. I think that’s an important ingredient,” Schuette said.

“Parents are in charge. You have to have that freedom to go to a different school.”

Schuette’s campaign said his plan to implement a rating system of schools from A to F would help parents make better choices.  His plan would award grants to schools that improve.

Schuette said he advocates an scholarship fund for families that need transportation to school.

He didn’t identify specifics, such as the source or amount of the grants, but he has pledged to form partnerships with philanthropies for such programs.

“We must also help families with the greatest financial needs cover the cost of getting their children to the school of their choice,” he said.

Whitmer calls for more buses

Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader, pointed to legislation she introduced in 2013 to allow schools to use a special type of dedicated tax millage –  known as sinking funds –  to purchase and maintain buses.

It failed but Whitmer said she’d use her clout if elected governor to push for assistance.

“As governor, I'll work to make sure every student can get to school safely, no matter where they are. This will help drive up test scores and help our kids get ahead,” Whitmer wrote in an email to Bridge and Chalkbeat.

Long-term, Whitmer also proposed reforms to the state’s formula for funding schools.

Now, schools get state funding based on a 1994 law called Proposal A that is based how much districts spent on students when the law was created.

Schools in different areas get different amounts of per-pupil funding, with schools in more affluent areas receiving more state funding than schools in poor areas.

Whitmer said schools should get more money if they educate children with more needs.

“Providing adequate funding for schools - finally - will mean both kids and teachers have the resources required to improve academic outcomes in every school, but especially those with high percentages of at-risk and other factors that require more intensive educational services,” Whitmer said.

Any changes in that funding formula likely would require a statewide referendum. Proposals over the years to change Proposal A have been dead on arrival in Lansing.

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Thu, 10/04/2018 - 8:51am

I don't think bus transportation is the main problem with low scores for students who switch schools frequently in Detroit. It seems like politicians are grasping at straws to find some kind of way they think will help the situation.

Mike S
Thu, 10/04/2018 - 9:49am

Is this a chicken and egg analysis? Which is the cause...which is the result? Are students/parents less committed to education so they switch schools more often....or is the switching causing them to be behind academically? 60% of the students who switched schools did not change addresses, just schools. I think studies like this start with a presumption, then draw their conclusions based upon that. If the presumption or bias is wrong, the research will likely come to a wrong cause and effect conclusion.

Ben W. Washburn
Thu, 10/04/2018 - 12:55pm

Neither candidate is truly on point, although Whitmer's proposal would be more important to rural school districts than urban ones. Rural districts usually have more stable populations and closer ties between parents and teachers, and bus transportation necessarily consumes a large percentage of their operating costs, at the expense of classroom expenditures. Proposal A in general brought rural systems much closer to the mid-level of support, but they are still in the bottom rungs of support.

In urban systems, any improvement in school access is more than offset by higher rates of school pupil turnover. Education is not just another consumer product, as free-market charter school proponents would have us believe. Effective education requires a long and lasting bonding between a group of parents, teachers and students. And improved bussing more than undercuts that essential need.

In my mind, as a somewhat trained sociologist, charter schools could have been a big part of the answer, but only if that had been specifically designed to bring about those kinds of lasting and caring relationships. But, they have instead totally ignored that possibility, by placing the emphasis upon the dollars to be earned from privatization. And state laws have never been finessed to enable that kind of charter.