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Report: DPS rescue legislation driven by big Lansing donors

The former Carstens Elementary School building, on Detroit's east side, is one of many, many schools that have been shuttered in Detroit.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio
Detroit Public Schools is offering 45 schools to charter companies.

The Detroit Public Schools needs a financial lifeline from Lansing to keep going beyond this school year.

But efforts to get that done in the state Legislature have largely been hijacked by big donors with different views on a separate but related issue: oversight of the city’s charter schools.

At least, that’s the conclusion of a report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

MCFN executive director Craig Mauger dug into the issues driving the DPS debate in Lansing. He talked to a number of people about whether donors have played a “large role” in the process.

“The first person I asked that to, I said ‘Has this been a big factor?’ And the response this source gave me was, ‘It’s been the only factor,’” Mauger said.

Mauger says the DPS rescue has largely become a “philosophical debate” about charter schools in Detroit, and whether they should be subject to greater regulation.

One camp favors a Detroit Education Commission, a group of mayoral appointees that would have the power to vet and coordinate the opening of new charter schools in Detroit.  

The DEC is part of the DPS rescue package the state senate passed in March. Supporters include the Detroit Regional Chamber, and the American Federation of Teachers.

The other donor camp opposes any increase in charter oversight. Its backers include West Michigan’s DeVos family, who Mauger calls “definitely the biggest donors in our state to Republicans,” and other pro-charter groups, some of which also have DeVos ties.

Mauger says the latter group seems to have an outsized influence on House Republican leaders.

The House GOP caucus refused to hear pitches from both Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and State Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, both supporters of the Senate DPS package, citing “timing issues” in both cases.

Mauger said he spoke to one charter advocate who said there’s really no room for compromise when it comes to any limitations on Detroit charters. The city currently has 97 charters schools; more Detroit students attend charters than DPS, though it’s still the largest “traditional” school district in the state.

“So it’s really this line in the sand. And now the Legislature has to figure which side of that line in the sand are they going to come down on?” Mauger said.

Mauger says the momentum seems to have swung in favor of the no-oversight camp, whose backers also have major clout with Senate Republicans who have taken a more bipartisan approach so far.

But some concessions might be inevitable. That’s because Senate GOP leaders need support from at least some Democrats, since some of their Republican colleagues are reluctant to offer DPS any aid at all. And everyone knows that all Michigan taxpayers will be on the hook for much of the district’s debt, which altogether totals more than $3 billion.

Mauger says it seems likely even more big donor groups will get involved as the clock ticks down toward insolvency — though few are likely to represent the DPS students, parents, and employees most affected by the decisions that are ultimately made.

“You’re seeing this issue that was really about how is education in Detroit going to be handled, spiraling out and affecting all these different interest groups who are all wanting to have a say,” Mauger said.

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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