Detroit Takeover Gives CEO Extraordinary Powers

Published May 1, 1999

Having compared the 1999 Michigan legislation authorizing the takeover of Detroit’s schools to Illinois legislation that in 1995 created the popular “Chicago model” for city school takeover, two Michigan researchers have concluded there are significant differences between the two sets of laws.

Michigan’s, they contend, is more limited in scope and would benefit from further legislation to enhance the ability of the board to enact and manage change.

In their April 2 paper, “Extraordinary Measures,” published by the TEACH Michigan Education Fund, researchers Robert Wittmann and Bryan Taylor provide not only the most detailed historical timeline available on education reform in Detroit but also a point-by-point comparison of the Illinois and Michigan takeover legislation, from reform board structure and principal authority to local school autonomy and union contract waivers. In brief, the comparison shows that:

  • The Detroit plan is part of a long history of legislative and other measures to restructure the school district.
  • The Detroit plan is moderate, limited to changing how the school board and top officers are put in place, closely following the Chicago model in this regard.
  • The Detroit plan gives the mayor greater authority than does the Chicago plan to appoint and dismiss reform board members, the CEO, and other top administrators.
  • While the Chicago CEO’s actions require board approval, the Detroit CEO assumes all the powers of the board to sign contracts, negotiate deals, and set reform agendas, reducing the board to a monitoring role.
  • The Chicago plan gives the mayor’s appointed board significantly greater special powers and responsibilities for pushing reform than does the Detroit plan.
  • The Chicago plan also addresses several specific reform components, such as site-based management and anti-corruption efforts, which the Detroit plan does not address directly.

“The creation of the mayoral board is an opportunity, and like all reform opportunities, it should be quickly seized before the contagious pessimism in our urban schools has a chance to kill it,” conclude Taylor and Wittmann. “Its success will depend in large part on those who lead.”

After reviewing the differences between the reform legislation adopted for each of the two cities, the two make the following recommendations:

  • The reform board should develop a game plan for addressing in advance the barriers that have crippled previous reform efforts.
  • The reform board should consider proposing further “Chicago-style” legislation to strengthen the board’s ability to manage change and free themselves from burdensome regulations.
  • The reform board should seek to make creative use of the general powers and opportunities for innovation that are just beginning to be explored by public school boards.
  • The reform board’s efforts would be aided with information from additional comparative studies of similar takeover efforts in cities such as Cleveland and Baltimore.

“There is no magic wand to change our schools,” the authors admit, “but there are many measures, some extraordinary and some common, which together can lead to steady improvements.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The March 10, 1999, research report by Bryan Taylor and Robert Wittmann, “Extraordinary Measures,” is available from the TEACH Michigan Education Fund, 312 North Pine, Lansing, MI 48910, phone 517/374-4092.