State’s plan for Detroit falls short

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Editor’s note: This op-ed initially appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

By Herman B. Gray, MD, MBA
President & CEO, United Way for Southeastern Michigan

Detroit has witnessed transformative change in the last few years, but a true resurgence will require a strong, functional school system — one that can provide our kids with the high-quality education they need to reach their full potential and, equally as important, one that will be held accountable when it does not.

Our current fragmented system fails on both counts. Not only do Detroit students continue to score among the lowest in the nation, the Detroit Public Schools district also has the burden of operating on fewer dollars per pupil as an alarming amount of its funds are being redirected to pay down debt.

Our children deserve better from their leaders.

Gov. Rick Snyder has expressed support for legislation recently introduced in the Senate that is designed to address the district’s financial distress. While this is an important step, these bills fall short of the real reform needed to confront the issues of overcrowded, under-resourced schools — many with crumbling infrastructure.

Detroit schools, under state oversight, dozens of independently operated charters and the state-run Educational Achievement Authority, are operating in a system that is not set up to succeed. The current proposal includes no requirements for better coordination of, or accountability for, these various entities educating Detroit schoolchildren. Such commonsense measures are the key to improving the quality of education for every Detroit child.

Public dissatisfaction over state takeovers of locally managed systems and institutions, including our schools, has reached a fevered pitch — and with good reason. Little improvement, and in some cases, actual harm, has come to our communities when their voices are met with inaction or worse yet, systematic suppression. After years of under-serving our children through a neglected and often-mismanaged school system, the public must demand action now.

After eight years of working in some of the city’s most challenged schools, we realized that philanthropy alone cannot solve this crisis.

Our belief in the need for a new public discourse around our collective responsibility to our children led to our involvement in the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children. The coalition — composed of a diverse group of parents, educators, public school supporters, charter advocates, community and civil rights organizations, religious leaders, labor leaders and business owners — spent months walking in the shoes of our students and educators to come up with recommendations proposed to Snyder last March in “The Choice Is Ours” report. The recommendations, while not a silver bullet, offer significant but practical reforms to foster coordination, accountability, financial stability and community voice.

Among the recommendations was the Detroit Education Commission — a locally controlled entity that would set and hold all schools to the same performance standard and oversee common enrollment, the opening of new schools, the closing of failing schools and the coordination of transportation — so that every student can access the school that best meets their needs.

The growing inadequacies of the education system in Detroit is not just a Detroit issue, it is simply that the problems are most pronounced and urgent here. Other districts across the state are suffering, as well. Our state leaders have a responsibility to ensure Michigan’s children receive a world-class education regardless of which community they live in. Solving the education crisis in Detroit can offer a blueprint for how our state can once again be proud of the investment we make in our kids, and reap the benefit of that investment for generations to come.

Contact your legislators and tell them they have a responsibility to our children, and that they can start exercising that responsibility by supporting the recommendations put forth by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children.

Our kids deserve it, and our future depends upon it.