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Detroit Board Set To Vote on Plan 'To Empower' Schools

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The Detroit Board of Education is slated to vote next week on a plan that would give teachers, parents, and students at individual schools substantial control over their educational programs, budgets, and resources--including the right to purchase services from vendors other than the central administration.

Under the proposal, called the Detroit Public Schools Empowerment Plan, "empowered schools'' would receive 92 percent of the district's per-pupil allocation--or about $4,000 per child--for every student they enrolled, plus any additional categorical funding attributable to that student.

Schools would be required to maintain a balanced budget. But they could spend the money as they saw fit and carry over surplus funds from one year to the next. They could also purchase services from private vendors rather than the central or area offices.

'Empowered Buyers'

The proposal would essentially change the central administration from a "sole-source provider of services to a vendor of services competing in the open market,'' according to a copy of the plan.

Schools would change from the "passive receivers of administration support to empowered buyers,'' the plan states.

Although the central administration would retain a permanent role in assessing school outcomes, its role as a service provider would depend on its ability to attract customers.

The concept is based on the increasingly popular notion that government agencies could be made more responsive and efficient by subjecting them to the same market forces and "entrepreneurial spirit'' found in the private sector. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992.)

The document was prepared with the assistance of Anderson Consulting and Larry Wilkerson & Associates.

Negotiating Charters

Individual "charters'' or contracts between empowered schools and the board of education would spell out their exact arrangements with the school district.

Although the details of such charters are still being worked out, a board member, David Olmstead, said they would probably outline the governance arrangements at the school, their expectations of students and parents, and any waivers of the union contract.

Empowered schools would have to abide by existing laws and meet the same outcome standards as other schools in the district. But beyond that, they would essentially be free to set their own direction.

The board would review the charters annually to ensure that schools were meeting acceptable levels of educational improvement and fiscal integrity.

Eventually, board members said, parents and students should be able to choose among such schools.

"Right now our main effort is to get as many schools as possible--including our typical neighborhood schools--empowered,'' said Mr. Olmstead. "Once you give them the empowerment, you are ultimately going to have diversity, and then you'll have to have choice.''

The plan states that empowered schools could choose to expand student selection from the neighborhood to citywide, but it does not require them to do so.

A separate initiative is under way to create schools of choice in the district.

Private Schools

Eventually, the charters could also be used to bring existing private schools into the public-school system.

Since January 1991, the Detroit board has been exploring the use of a legal charter to enable existing private schools to become public and receive public funds. (See Education Week, Feb. 6, 1991.)

Lawrence C. Patrick, a board member, said last week that he hopes to open up the charters to private schools as soon as the details are worked out.

As part of the district's move toward school empowerment, 11 schools have already received the remainder of their budgets for the 1991-92 school year in a lump sum, based on the district's per-pupil allocation.

By next fall, as many as 30 schools are expected to have received "empowerment status'' and to have negotiated charters with the board, Mr. Patrick said.

He added that the plan is based on the belief "that competition will result in market forces driving the quality up in every school.''

In 1988, a slate of four board candidates swept into office based on a promise to bring empowerment, diversity, and choice into the school system.

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