Michigan legislature approves Detroit school bailout: What's next?

Michigan lawmakers passed a bill that will keep Detroit's public schools from going bankrupt, but critics say it doesn't do as much as it could have for the public schools. 

David Eggert/AP Photo
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof speaks with reporters outside the Senate chamber on Wednesday in Lansing, Mich. He backed a $617 million bailout and restructuring of the Detroit Public Schools.

After hours of emotional debate, Michigan’s Legislature approved a $617-million rescue plan for the Detroit Public Schools late last night. Yet, many say, there still is much to be done for the state's public schools.

The school rescue bill passed with the narrowest possible margin in both the House of Representatives and the state Senate, with votes of 55-54 and 19-18 respectively. The bill will now go to Michigan governor Rick Snyder for approval.

Although some say that the legislature could have done more to deal with Detroit’s structural problems, others say the bill accomplishes the most important task: eliminating Detroit’s debt.

“We’re disappointed in many aspects,” Terrence Martin, the executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers told The Christian Science Monitor, “but we remain steadfast, and we are treading forward. The good thing is that we have a school district, and that we have a school board.”

Detroit’s public school system has struggled for years, plagued by declining enrollment and poor facilities.

In January this year, Detroit’s teachers (forbidden from striking) engaged in "sickouts" to protest inadequate facilities and educational materials. More than 50 of Detroit’s schools, which serve approximately 46,000 students, were closed because of the protests.

Months later, in early May, educators again took part in sickouts to protest the city’s admission that, despite a short-term bailout, it did not have the funds required to pay teacher salaries though the summer months.

If Governor Snyder approves the legislation, which he is expected to do, the Detroit Public Schools will receive $617 million to settle existing debt. Although many are calling this a bailout, Mr. Martin told the Monitor that as the existing debt was run up by the state of Michigan while it had control over the school district, the state is merely paying its own debts with this bill.

The bill would establish two school districts in Detroit: a new, debtless school district with control of all the old school district’s schools, staff, and resources, and an old shell of a school district to carry the debt.

"The Michigan Legislature has moved forward with the creation of a new, debt-free school district that will be governed by a school board that the people of Detroit will elect,” wrote Detroit Public Schools Transition Manager Judge Steven Rhodes in a statement to the Monitor.

Yet although this bill, which saves the Detroit Public Schools from certain insolvency, may seem universally beneficial, it was the subject of fierce debate in both houses of the state legislature.

While proponents of the legislation say that education at any price is better than no education at all, critics of the bill say that important points were sacrificed during debate.

With enrollment consistently declining, critics say, the legislation should have supported a proposed commission of officials concerned with the opening of new schools. One of the primary drains on the Detroit Public Schools’ enrollment is the proliferation of charter schools. Some Democrats have blamed the commission’s omission from the final bill on Republican catering to the school-choice lobby.

Currently, Detroit has 12 charter school authorizers. This has created a situation that some education professionals call the “Wild wild West of chartering,” says Martin.

Currently, there is no central board with oversight over decisions about where schools are placed, leading to an overabundance of schools in certain neighborhoods, and nearly no schools in others.

“The problem with this,” Martin told the Monitor by phone, “is that if it continues, we’ll be back in the same situation that we are now, even further in debt and with declining enrollment.”

Unfortunately for teachers, the bill also lacks provisions to build up the new, debtless Detroit Public Schools.

“This influx of money just puts the Detroit Public Schools on an even footing with other education providers such as charter schools,” says Eric Lupher, the president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “Safety, maintenance, and staffing issues still remain the same.”

Yet many are optimistic. According to Mr. Lupher, approximately half of the district’s revenue prior to restructuring went toward paying down the schools’ massive debt. Without the burden of debt, the public schools will be able to put more money towards improving existing problems.

One important component of Detroit’s rebuilding is the institution of elections for a citywide school board. Although Lupher told the Monitor that Detroit has had a school board over the last several years, it has been virtually powerless, with all real authority resting with the state’s interim manager for the Detroit schools.

“The school board is going to be very, very important for morale,” says Lupher, “Many Detroiters have expressed disenfranchisement and have felt distanced from the process of government in Detroit.”

Although the bill passed by a razor-thin margin at the state level, many at both the state and local level argue that as long as Detroit has a school district, everything else is secondary.

Despite Martin’s concerns about charter schools and the logistics of reestablishing a school district, he told the Monitor that, “While there are ground sweeping changes we wanted that did not appear in the bills, we are hopeful that we can negotiate a contract with the new school board.”

"We know that we can be the welcoming, safe, world class school district that everyone wants to see," Martin says, "from parents to teachers to community leaders."

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