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Charter school lobbyists blind legislators from coming up with fix for Detroit schools

Jack Lessenberry

If you’ve been paying attention to Lansing over the past several years, you know that the Michigan legislature seldom ever misses an opportunity to do the wrong thing.

This is due in large part to ideological fanaticism, strengthened by gerrymandering and term limits, which has given massive powers to lobbyists and special interests. In recent years, the House has been considerably worse than the Senate.

This is why, for example, the roads haven’t really been fixed. There are many other such examples, and here’s the newest: The Detroit public schools are about to run out of money.

Michigan has a constitutional obligation to provide an education for all its children. The state house of representatives, under pressure from the so-called “school choice lobby,” passed a plan that:

A) doesn’t provide enough money to fix the problem,

B) rejects the governor’s plea to provide some oversight over the proliferation of out-of-control charter schools, and

C) is more interested in punishing teachers and especially their unions than in helping children, most of whom are poor, black, and in districts that never vote Republican.

That is the cold, hard truth. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Detroit schools, which were once among the finest in the nation.

Detroiters did much of it to themselves, by electing a series of incompetent and politicized school boards, who wasted vast amounts on huge contracts for failed superintendents.

The state then appointed a series of emergency managers who got lots of favorable press, but failed to fix the finances. What also baffles me is the recent story of the thirteen Detroit school principals charged with taking bribes and kickbacks on school supplies, black people stealing from the poor black children it is their supposed mission to help.

Probably the worst plague of all has been the charters, which I see as essentially private schools running on government money siphoned off from the public schools.

Some of these do provide a good education. Many are substandard, as a massive Detroit newspaper study has shown, and some run out of money and close down mid-year.

Under my government, I’d eliminate state funding to every charter in the state, and return that money to public education. Charters would be welcome to try and survive as private schools.

That may never happen, but Governor Snyder did propose as part of his Detroit school bailout plan a Detroit Education Commission that would have a role in determining where any new school would be allowed to open.

This makes a great deal of sense, largely for the same reason McDonald’s doesn’t allow two of its franchises on the same block. But the charters don’t want any oversight, and they got their puppets in the House to pass a bill without any Democratic support. This stands in stark contrast to the Senate, where both parties worked hard on a reasonable, bipartisan proposal.

The Senate plan would cost a little more, but actually might save the schools. Anyone who knows anything about this will tell you the House bill would be a disaster.

Now, we have to see if reason prevails. What happens won’t be important just for Detroit’s kids, but for the economic future of our state. I’m hoping for the best.

But I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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