Court Blocks Detroit School Reforms

Published May 4, 2010

A legal melee is underway in Detroit as groups fight to stop wide-ranging reforms for the city’s failing schools.

A circuit court judge in Wayne County issued a temporary injunction in April against Detroit Public School (DPS) Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb and his academic officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox (R)has asked the state appeals court in Lansing to overturn the injunction.

“Every day that Mr. Bobb’s hands are tied, the risks to students increase,” said Cox. “Robert Bobb’s power to continue reforming the Detroit Public Schools must be restored immediately.”

‘Excellent Schools Detroit’

At issue are reforms recommended by Bobb, which were developed by a distinguished group including the Skillman Foundation, Detroit’s Parent Network, and the founder of Detroit’s University of Preparatory Academy.

That coalition, called Excellent Schools Detroit, wants to create a report card on all Detroit schools, whether public or private, and seeks to close failing schools. The plan also would create 70 newschools by 2020 and establish a national teacher recruiting initiative.

More controversial is a proposal effectively dissolving the DPS school board and give Detroit’s mayor the power to appoint the superintendent. 

Supporters of reform argue comprehensive academic reforms are necessary before DPS can fix its financial issues.

Condemned As ‘Dictator’

Leading the opposition to mayoral control is a group called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which describes itself as a coalition campaigning to promote public education. BAMN national coordinator Donna Stern refers to Bobb as “the dictator over DPS appointed by Governor [Jennifer] Granholm” (D).

“Bobb has unlawfully usurped the power of the elected school board,” Stern asserted.

Stern joined the Detroit School Board and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers union, in urging the court to block the reforms. Their lawsuit argues Bobb’s authority is limited to financial matters.

“The people of Detroit want the right to democratically control their schools just like any other district,” Stern said. Her group opposes all the changes state and local officials wish to pursue, including charter school expansion and teacher tenure reforms. BAMN is gathering signatures for a November ballot initiative to block Detroit’s reform efforts.

Success in New York

Jason Brooks, director of research and communications at the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, based in New York, says the approach being blocked in Detroit has worked in the nation’s largest city. “Mayoral control of schools in New York City has been a success,” he said.

“Since mayoral control was established about nine years ago, we have seen some significant reform,” Brooks continued. “Overall it makes a single individual, the mayor, accountable for the performance of the city’s schools, just like the accountability for the city police, firefighters, and others.

New Accountability Rules

Brooks noted New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein have implemented a report card system for the city’s schools, which is easy for parents to understand. There is also an annual inspection of schools for academic performance and overall quality of the “learning environment.”

“These significant reforms would have had no chance with the traditional school board,” Brooks said. “Other cities in the state have announced a desire to emulate New York City, including both Rochester and Syracuse, two of the largest districts in the state.”

Brooks says other cities should indeed follow New York’s example. “This system creates stability and accountability—holding one person accountable for the quality of schools,” he said.

Mayoral Control Questioned

But not all school reformers are certain mayoral control is necessarily effective.

“It’s hard to say whether mayoral control of Detroit Public Schools is a good idea,” said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “DPS was under mayoral control from 1999 to 2006 with no measurable improvement for the district.”

Van Beek added, however, that Detroit schools are in dire need of repair and mayoral control could work.

“I do think mayoral control, if done right, could put the district on the path towards improvement faster than the current school board could,” he said.

“The current state of DPS can be attributed to a dysfunctional school board, a corrupt local political machine, poor management and administration, and a politically powerful and well-funded public-school employee union that fights tooth and nail to maintain its privileged position and the status quo,” Van Beek said.

Calls for More Money

The opponents of reform say more money is the answer.

“We believe that the only solution to the crisis of education in Detroit is a massive infusion of federal funds to ‘bail out’ both DPS and the City of Detroit,” said Stern. “Schools should be funded by the federal government and there should be equity in funding.”

Van Beek disagrees, saying more money is the default position of a corrupt establishment. He notes more than $1 trillion in federal education spending aimed at inner-city schools since 1965 has done little to improve quality or performance.

“DPS needs accountability and school choice,” Van Beek said. “It’s absolutely appalling that the parents left in Detroit remain subject to a dysfunctional school system, while nearby, private schools in the city continue to deliver results that satisfy parents and students.”

“DPS should tap into these private schools and allow parents more access to a wider range of schools,” he explained. “When the schools begin to compete to serve the parents’ interests, parents will demand the accountability that DPS desperately needs.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.