Fixing Detroit Schools
Finances, transportation, and a lack of respect for parents and concern for student achievement were key issues raised by members of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren at a breakfast at the Mackinac Policy Conference. John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge and a coalition member, pointed out that issues at DPS are much deeper than people recognize. He pointed out that 15 years ago, DPS used to educate 85% of the students in Detroit, but in the years since has lost 120,000 students and now has less than 40,000 students enrolled. “When you look at those numbers,” Rakolta said, “you get the enormity of the lack of revenue this system has had to deal with in the last 15 years.” He cited a number of factors that he says has prevented the system from investing in the success of students – including state regulatory requirements and legacy costs and spiraling debt.
The Coalition has recommended that a panel appointed by Detroit’s mayor be put in place to oversee school performance – both public schools and charter schools. Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation and a co-chair of the coalition, says there is a need for someone with no bias who can be the gatekeeper who holds people to standards. Allen said, “If you are a low-performing school, you cannot continue to operate.” Governor Snyder has said he wants to have a role in appointing that oversight group. Allen says local control is important. “At some point, Detroit has to stop wearing the scarlet letter,” Allen said. “We can’t be held accountable for low performing schools when we are not able to control them.”
The coalition recommendations and the governor’s goals are setting up a lively debate for state legislators. Issues include the need for the DPS system to be relieved of its debt. Other issues include governance issues, the role of charter schools, and transportation needs for the more than 30,000 Detroit students who are attending schools in adjacent district schools of choice.
Rakolta says the suburban assumption that parents don’t care is false. He says the coalition found that parents care deeply, but are frustrated by years of neglect. He says the real question facing Detroit is “how do we achieve educational excellence so people achieve economic independence.”