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Detroit is the laboratory for state school reform effort

Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder says the state will take a dramatically new to approach to its worst schools--starting in Detroit.

Years of turmoil and power struggles over the Detroit Public Schools have left a polarizing legacy in the city. That history has left many Detroiters absorbing Snyder’s plan with a cautious sense of déjà vu.

You had to have a media badge or be on the guest list to attend the press conference at Renaissance High School Monday. That didn’t sit well with more than a few people, some of whom exchanged words with security guards and frazzled gatekeepers who blocked a main stairway.

As the confrontation went on downstairs, Governor Snyder was upstairs outlining his vision for the state’s failing schools to a polite group of politicians, businesspeople, and other invitees: “It’s a new way of doing things, in terms of creating a new authority to work with schools that are failing. And it’s to focus on those failing schools, those bottom 5% of our schools.”

That “authority” Snyder is talking about is officially known as the Education Achievement System. It’s basically a statewide school district—established through an agreement between the state and Eastern Michigan University—for the state’s 200 lowest-performing schools. 39 of those schools are in Detroit.

The idea is to make those schools more like charter schools, with more autonomy for school staff. State education officials say that strategy has yielded good results in other cities. They say the authority will also have a leaner central office, more focused on supporting teachers and getting resources to the classroom.

Snyder says he’s empowering the Detroit Public Schools’ current emergency manager, Roy Roberts, to start the process with failing Detroit schools by September 2012--with an eye toward gradual expansion.

“We’ll look at moving schools into this Educational Achievement System-- starting as a pilot here in Detroit, to incubate that success system,” Snyder said.

The announcement answered big questions about the state’s basic strategy for dealing with failing schools—and how it will tackle failing Detroit schools in particular. But it also raised a lot of big questions that didn’t get answered. When a member of the elected Detroit school board asked Roberts how the new system would affect the existing district’s finances, Roberts tried to downplay the question.

“I’m not gonna let people around here get me confused with all this side stuff,” Roberts answered. “I’m gonna concentrate on educating kids in the city of Detroit.”

But it’s those kinds of big, unanswered questions that have many in Detroit—teachers, parents, and elected leaders--worried that “the devil is in the details.” And there’s also the sense they’ve been here before. A “state reform board” ran the Detroit schools for a good part of the last decade, and Roberts is the second emergency manager since 2009. Detroit State Representative Thomas Stallworth sees a lot to like in the state’s reform “concept”--but he’s also cautious.

“We’ve had a string of charismatic leaders who’ve come with highly visible plans,” Stallworth said. “And time after time what we’ve experienced is each one that succeeds the other says the system is worse, it’s more broken than before.”

And then there’s what might be the biggest concern for most Detroiters—what happens to the schools that stay regular Detroit Public Schools? Snyder and Roberts say changes are coming—both in terms of more charter-style autonomy for those schools, and a smaller central office. But in a district where every teacher right now has a pink slip, there’s still pressing concern about the its remaining $327 million deficit.

David Arsen, Professor of Educational Administration at Michigan State University, says there’s legitimate concern that moving students out means losing state money--but keeping all the old financial liabilities.

“That means that unless accommodations are made in the district’s debt burden, it will become an even larger share of the budget for the district’s remaining schools,” Arsen says.

Arsen believes that with so many unanswered questions, it’s just too soon to tell how this will all play out Detroit schools. But as this dramatic reform effort takes shape, people across the state—especially those involved with schools on a certain Michigan Department of Education list--will be watching very, very closely.





Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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