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What priorities will Governor Snyder give up in order to overhaul Detroit schools?

Lawmakers are continuing their autumn recess, but they’ll soon be back in Lansing to focus on Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for Detroit schools.

Old Co./New Co.

The plan, which could be introduced early next month, is modeled somewhat after the auto industry rescue. It would break the Detroit schools into two districts: an “old district” that would assume the district’s debt and a “new district” that would focus on educating students.

“I’ve talked about an old co/new co kind of model, to leave the debt with the old co, and let a new school district move forward with significantly reduced debt loads,” Snyder explained earlier this fall.

Proponents of the plan say it’s necessary to do something now because the district’s financial problems will only continue to grow. “If we don’t do this… if we don’t actually take and pay off the debt, four or five years from now we’re going to be in a much worse case – maybe bankruptcy – and we’re going to take a gigantic pill to swallow,” state Superintendent Brian Whiston explained.


The plan to fix the collapsing school system would cost the state some $715 million over a decade and is taking criticism from many sides. Detroit lawmakers don’t like the fact that it doesn’t immediately return control of the district to an elected school board, instead of a state-appointed emergency manager.

“We believe in a democratic society and we believe in democracy. And the voters of the city of Detroit have spoken and they’ve elected a school board. And we want our school board to be empowered,” state Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, told reporters.

Charter schools don’t like  the plan because a Detroit schools “czar” would have sweeping authority to manage and shut down schools in the city.

Outstate lawmakers don’t like that the state would be called upon to provide all the funding for the largest school district in the state.

Keep on keeping on

But, despite the opposition, Governor Snyder is pushing on. “That’s why I want to get the legislative process going. A lot of people are going to have different variations. I think we were putting together a solid plan as a starting point, and then we’ll get feedback.”

Well, feedback has come, just this week from the head of one of the philanthropic groups that’s invested in Detroit schools.

Nonprofits and foundations feel like it should be up to the state Legislature to pay for the rebuilding of the district. That’s because many argue that it’s been the state that’s been in charge of the Detroit schools for the past six years, with four different emergency managers.

That feeling led Republican state House Speaker Kevin Cotter to basically say, ‘put up or shut up,’ that philanthropic groups should put up money if they want the same from taxpayers.  And, that, of course, was the pattern with the Detroit “Grand Bargain” and the Flint water crisis, where philanthropic groups did partner with the state government to try and fix huge problems.

Give a little, get a little

Meantime, in order to push through the plan in the Legislature, Governor Snyder will likely have to compromise on a few of his own initiatives.

Reports say the Governor has already been asked to end the controversial school-reforming Education Achievement Authority in order to win support from Detroit lawmakers and maybe returning the district to an elected school board.

But anything the governor does to win buy-in from the D side of the aisle will likely cost votes on the R side. So, like he did with the Detroit “Grand Bargain,” the Medicaid expansion, and roads, the Governor will need to find a package that falls within the sweet spot of winning over enough lawmakers without forcing off too many on the other end.  And do it without giving up on his primary objectives.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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