Detroit May Ask Private Schools To Join System

By Peter Schmidt — February 06, 1991 7 min read
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The Detroit Board of Education has agreed to consider a landmark proposal that would allow some private schools in the city to become public schools paid for out of public funds.

The board voted unanimously at its Jan. 22 meeting to begin a series of hearings and debates designed to develop a legal charter that, if adopted this spring, would enable private schools to join the public school system as early as next fall.

The intent of the charter, board members said last week, would be to bring students and state aid back into the public schools, to help decentralize the system, and to offer public-school students more educational choice.

The charter is still very much in its conceptual stage, and numerous legal, political, and labor-related questions need to be addressed before the first private school can be chartered as public, board members and experts on educational governance stressed last week.

“The first hurdles that they are going to have to cross are the constitutional hurdles,” said Robert G. Harris, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, noting that the state Constitution prohibits the use of public funds at private schools except for transportation.

Joe L. Greene, president of the 1,135-member Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, said he would do “everything possible to stop public funds from being spent at a private school.”

Noting that parental dissatisfaction with public education is the reason most private schools in the city exist, John M. Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said he wondered “what makes anybody think a private school wants to join the Detroit public school system.”

Nevertheless, April Howard Coleman and David Olmstead, the board members who sponsored the measure, expressed confidence last week that Detroit can become the first district in the nation to have private schools declare themselves public and join the public-school system.

“As far as our school-reform efforts in Detroit, I think this is our whole shooting match,” Mr. Olmstead said of the board’s chartering and decentralization effort. “There is a pent-up demand in Detroit for radical change.”

The board has asked for a task-force report on the plan by Feb. 28.

About 12,900 children are enrolled in Catholic schools in Detroit, 6,700 in other private schools, and 181,100 in the public schools, according to the state education department.

According to the resolution adopted by the board last month, the district is losing about $4,000 in state aid each year for every child who attends a private school. The board estimates that the district stands to gain some $60 million in state aid if it can absorb schools organized outside the public system.

In order to enter the Detroit public-school system, Mr. Olmstead said, private schools almost certainly would be required to show that they will charge no tuition, have equitable admissions policies, and conform to public-school policies regarding the First Amendment to the Constitution and its separation of church and state.

According to the board resolution, staff members of the newly chartered schools would be paid no less than equivalent personnel currently employed by the Detroit public schools. In addition, the chartering of such schools would not result in the reduction of resources available to children in non-chartered public schools.

The board resolution also called for seven existing public schools to be chartered--and thereby given total control over 95 percent of their budgets, with only monitoring and auditing requirements--by the beginning of the 1991-92 school year.

Mr. Olmstead said that other public schools will likely be chartered, and that private schools that entered the system would be afforded at least the same amount of autonomy.

“What we are trying to accomplish,” Mr. Olmstead said, “is making the central administration and school board so non-intrusive that even a private school outside the system would be willing to come into the system.”

Michigan Department of Education officials and several national experts on educational governance interviewed last week said Detroit is the first district they know of to consider giving public status to formerly private schools. But, they cautioned, the Detroit proposal is as yet too ill-defined to determine exactly what its implications might be.

“If you take what they have said so far at face value, then this could be a very radical change in the way public education is conceived,’' said John E. Chubb, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

However, Mr. Chubb added, “you have to be very careful about debating choice and privatization in the abstract. There are terrific ways to do it, and there are very bad ways to do it. It really depends a lot on the specifics.”

Precedents for the Detroit proposal do exist, the experts said. In Vermont and Connecticut, for example, several localities have long-standing contracts with private schools to provide what is essentially a public education to all children in those districts who apply.

And, most recently, the Wisconsin legislature approved a plan under which about 1,000 low-income Milwaukee schoolchildren attend nonsectarian private schools using state-funded vouchers.

Ted Kolderie, a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, noted that, even though public contracts with private entities are increasingly common in education, the private organizations normally remain legally independent.

Moreover, Mr. Kolderie said, the Detroit charter concept differs significantly from most proposed and existing voucher systems, which allow students to attend any schools that meet certain criteria. Under the Detroit model, the school district would have discretion over which schools would be open to its students.

Mr. Olmstead of the Detroit board said he opposes vouchers because they result in public funds being used to give some children a better education than others and stress the differences between private and public schools without doing enough to improve the public system.

The question of whether the courts will allow formerly private schools to become public was regarded by experts interviewed last week as the single biggest obstacle to the Detroit proposal.

An amendment added to Article VIII, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution in 1970 stipulates that no public money or property can be used “to aid or maintain any private, denominational, or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school,” with the exception of money paid for the transportation of students to and from school.

John A. Nevin, a spokesman for Gov. John M. Engler of Michigan, said that the Governor looks favorably on any plan that increases competition and parental choice but that “there are a substantial number of pitfalls and details to be worked out” in the Detroit proposal.

Even if the Detroit board is legally able to grant the charters to formerly private schools, they have few assurances that private schools will be willing to enter such an agreement.

Although most private schools pay staff members much less and make do with much less funding than their public counterparts, several Detroit private-school administrators interviewed last week said they would be unwilling to enter into a charter agreement with the city out of fear of losing their autonomy.

Mr. Chubb of the Brookings Institution predicted that the same unions and special-interest groups that seek to impose regulations on existing public schools are likely to want to impose regulations on former private schools that might become chartered.

Joyce G. McCray, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, which represents 70 percent of the nation’s private schools, praised the Detroit plan as bold, but predicted that many private schools would be hesitant to relinquish selective admissions policies that reflect their specialized missions.

Mr. Olmstead conceded that private schools probably will not want to join the public system “the way it is run now,” but added that strong sentiment on the school board in favor of deregulation and other reforms could make joining the system more appealing to a number of private schools, including Afro-centric programs and schools run by community groups, service organizations, universities, and businesses.

“If we take private schools and turn them into public schools, we’re bringing a whole class of people back into the system,” said Ms. Coleman, who asserted that the chartered schools are likely to appeal to middle-class Detroit residents who benefited from public education but who now send their children to private schools.

Mr. Olmstead said the board may also be interested in drawing into the public system two nondenominational, values-oriented private schools that Catholic Archbishop Adam J. Maida has proposed establishing with the assistance of local Episcopal and Lutheran church leaders.

A spokesman for the archbishop declined last week to comment on the likelihood of such an agreement, saying their plans are still preliminary.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Detroit May Ask Private Schools To Join System


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