Inkster Gets the Message

Published April 1, 2000

As Detroit Free Press reporters Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki and Sheryl James noted recently, no one took it seriously a few years ago when the Mackinac Center for Public Policy proposed the idea of privatizing public school districts. But on February 15, the Inkster Board of Education voted 5-1 to approve a contract with Edison Schools, Inc., to run its troubled school district for the next five years. What happened?

A major reason for this seismic shift in attitude on the part of school boards is the threat of extinction. And, as Dr. Samuel Johnson once observed, “Nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of hanging in the morning.”

The change took root last spring, when Michigan lawmakers ran out of patience with the continuing academic and management problems of the Detroit school district and voted to replace the elected school board with an appointed reform board. In early February this year, lawmakers in Lansing proposed a similar takeover of another troubled district, the Benton Harbor Area Schools.

That’s when the Inkster board acted, since the district appeared to be the next likely takeover target, with a $1.9 million deficit, an annual dropout rate of nearly 19 percent, and a four-year high school graduation rate of only 38 percent, and having lost one-third of its students over the past few years.

“We are not prepared to lose our local control,” board president George Williams told the Detroit Free Press. “We are not losing our identity.”

Edison will pay off the district’s deficit, invest $4.5 million in the schools, provide a computer for each family with students above third grade, and institute a longer school day, a longer school year, and before- and after-school programs. With existing district resources, Williams said it would take a decade to provide what Edison is providing in a single year.

For-profit Companies in Maryland

While Inkster school officials were bringing in a for-profit company to run all of the district’s schools, Maryland state officials were developing another takeover model: bring in a for-profit company to run individual schools on a three-year contract.

The Maryland state board of education has had the power to seize control of the state’s lowest performing schools since 1994, when such schools numbered only two. Despite threats of takeover by the board, the number of failing schools has grown to almost 100. Finally, in early February, the state board voted to take control of three Baltimore elementary schools and turn them over to for-profit management, either singly or as a package.

Matthew Joseph, a policy analyst for Advocates for Children and Youth, applauded the move, which he regarded as long overdue. “You can’t make threats you’re not going to carry out,” he told The Washington Post.

The prospective contractors, Edison Schools, Inc. and Mosaica Education, Inc., will not be bound by the collective bargaining arrangements covering the other Baltimore schools and will be permitted to hire non-union staff. As with a district school reconstitution, teachers and other staff may re-apply for their jobs but have no guarantee they will be hired. All three Baltimore schools have already experienced high levels of turnover.

Recent Takeovers Elsewhere

Last August, the New Mexico education department took over financial authority for the 13,500-student Santa Fe school district after a routine independent audit revealed enough bookkeeping and accounting errors to raise serious concerns about the district’s fiscal management.

In February, Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll appointed former Superintendent Eugene Thayer to manage the business affairs of the Lawrence school district pending the outcome of an investigation of current superintendent Mae E. Gaskins for allegedly mismanaging district funds.

Proposed Takeovers Elsewhere

Last September, Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci angered the state’s teacher unions by suggesting that public schools that perform poorly on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System could be targeted for takeover by the state. And in December, Colorado Governor Bill Owens proposed a novel strategy for deficient schools: turn them over to parents and teachers by converting them into independent charter schools. Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards told The Glenwood Post that Owens would face resistance from local school boards.