The excitement leading up to Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts’ announcement of a sweeping redesign of the district’s worst schools was short-lived. Out of it came disappointing news that parents and students will be subjected to another grandiose reform plan propped up by a bailout of the cash-strapped district.
The cornerstone of the “Education Achievement System” is a turnaround model in which 39 low achieving Detroit schools will be removed from the district in 2012 and put under a state-run “system of schools.” DPS will refinance $200 million of its $327 million deficit by issuing new bonds.
There’s nothing revolutionary here. Snyder and company could have mailed-in this weak effort that does nothing to instill confidence that something meaningful is coming to Detroit.
Reflecting back to 2009 when Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed EFM Robert Bobb, the record shows that every reform measure he tried – including an ill-conceived school closing plan — accelerated the mass exodus of parents and students to private schools, charter schools and suburban school districts. Since school districts receive a state grant based on student headcount, every departing child represented the equivalent of loss tax base.
Threats by Roy Roberts to cancel teacher union agreements and re-bid vendor contracts aren’t likely to convince anyone that stability has returned to DPS. Vendors can’t be confident that DPS is a good place to sell their services, or that they will be paid. Since what’s proposed is hardly a self-correcting mechanism, the chaos can be expected to continue.
Decentralizing the out-of-control bureaucracy and making all schools “franchise” or schools of choice could awaken whatever survival instincts DPS still has. The merits of choice as a catalyst for educational reform are well documented.
One of the earliest “franchise” success stories is in New York’s East Harlem school district. I observed first hand the education experiment in which the district went from one of the city’s worst districts to one of its best.
Key was giving principals their own operating budgets and freedom to design instructional programs, select texts and other materials. Parents were given input into the educational theme of schools as well as the ability to select from a range of school offerings that include languages, communication and media arts, science, mathematics and technology or vocational subjects.
The teachers union, although initially reluctant, allowed administrators to select instructors that best fit the philosophy and mission of the school. The result was impressive: graduation rates shooting up to 90 percent from less than 50 percent and waiting lists of parents and students hoping to gain admission.
Operating schools as “franchises” in NYC threw open the door to competition and opportunity by increasing the sense of ownership for parents and students, teachers and administrators. Schools became more accountable for results. Those that failed to meet minimum educational standards, or did not attract enough students, were closed or new administrators installed.
If “franchise” schools worked in Spanish Harlem, they can also be instrumental in stopping Detroit’s population loss. The more diverse the choices available to parents, the more attractive the city becomes.
The old ways must die.
Detroit students have some of the greatest unmet education needs anywhere, graduating students who can barely read or compute.
It’s time to move beyond another top down reform model that promises more failure and limitation. Parents shouldn’t have to accept the judgment of an EFM, or another education bureaucracy about what is best for city children who everyday become another statistic in the cycle of under-education.
Educational choice is liberating. It promises a greater voice and a greater sense of responsibility for all concerned. It must be part of any reform strategy.