School & District Management

Power Shift for Detroit Moves Ahead

By Kerry A. White — March 03, 1999 6 min read

After years of unmet promises to improve the Motor City’s ailing schools, Michigan lawmakers are setting their hopes on a plan that would dissolve the Detroit school board and transfer power to Mayor Dennis W. Archer.

The legislation, based on what is being promoted here and nationwide as the “Chicago model” because it echoes a 1995 Illinois law that delivered power over schools to Mayor Richard M. Daley, was proposed in mid-January by Gov. John Engler. The Republican governor sees the power shift as a last resort for the state’s largest school system.

“After eight years of inadequate progress, no more committees, no more reports, no more excuses,” Mr. Engler said in an interview in Washington last week. “It is time to act. Too many kids are not getting the education they deserve.”

The governance proposal has quickly become the No. 1 issue among political and community leaders here as well as in Lansing, the state capital.

And despite fierce resistance from Detroit-area lawmakers, many of whom have described it as a means of imposing the will of a largely white legislature on a predominantly black city, the idea is gaining momentum. In recent weeks, business groups, churches, and prominent civil rights groups, including the Detroit Urban League, have endorsed the plan.

At the center of the debate is the mayor, who, though initially reticent, now says that if the legislation passes--a prospect that seems increasingly likely--he will accept the responsibility.

“I’m very concerned” about disbanding an elected school board, Mr. Archer, a Democrat and African-American, said in an interview here last week. But, he added, “if they give me this bull charging down the way from Lansing, then I’m going to take it by the horns and we’re going to have some changes.”

To make the changes possible in time for the new school year, the legislation is moving through the Statehouse at a lightning pace. Gov. Engler, who is in his third and last term as governor but who has taken on a prominent role in national GOP politics, said he’d like the bill on his desk by Easter, April 4.

Meanwhile, the 11,000-member Detroit Federation of Teachers has avoided a direct endorsement or condemnation of the plan. Instead, the American Federation of Teachers affiliate is citing several goals for any school reform efforts here, including a core curriculum, smaller class sizes, expanded teacher training, and site-based decisionmaking.

New Funding Added

The plan--details of which are still unresolved--would give Mr. Archer 30 days from its passage to appoint a seven-member “reform board.” The panel would have the same powers and responsibilities as the present 11-member elected school board.

The mayor would also choose a chief executive officer to oversee day-to-day operations of the 178,000-student district, which has about 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.8 billion. Each year, the new administration would be required to produce progress reports detailing reform initiatives, student performance, budgets and spending, and other data. Detroit residents could opt to restore the elected board after five years.

The bill’s sponsors were initially reluctant to include any new money in the legislation, but late last month they attached $15 million that would help the district lower class sizes and provide other improvements. Though the new aid would be meager in comparison to the $1.3 billion the state provided the system this school year, it may help solidify support among Democrats, including Detroit-area legislators.

In recent community and school board meetings, emotions of parents and activists opposed to the plan have run high. Many have denounced the proposed legislation, and the lawmakers behind it, as racially insensitive.

At a meeting last week sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Irma Clark, a former Detroit school board president, many of the more than 100 people who showed up at a run-down high school came to vent their anger.

“We want to reform our school system, but we can do it ourselves,” said Rose E. Starks, a mother of six. “Leave us alone.” She held up a copy of the legislation and said: “Is this all you have? I say rip it up.”

Parent Dennis Dole warned Republican lawmakers who support the bill to prepare for “a little civil disobedience.”

Poll Finds Support

Quietly, however, many people here support the changes. A February survey by the Detroit Free Press found 54 percent of city residents in favor of mayoral control of the schools and 32 percent opposed to it. Some 70 percent of those polled indicated that they had little or no confidence in the elected school board’s ability to improve schools.

“An overwhelming majority of parents support this,” argued William Beckham, the president of New Detroit Inc., a civil rights organization that has tracked progress in the school system for the past decade. “The issue gets clouded on voting rights. People fear they’re being disenfranchised.”

Like other proponents of the power shift, Mr. Beckham’s group has determined that the need for sustained reform cannot be met by a school board whose members are elected every two years. “It’s a systematic problem that defies personalities,” he said. “Do we finally stop and fix [the schools] or continue to tinker around the edges?”

Though similar governance shifts in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere have resulted in streamlined administration and cleaner finances, the jury is still out on whether such transfers of power can bring about marked improvement where it matters most: student achievement.

Limited Success

Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, said too many of those urban reform plans represent “a quick fix that avoids hard decisions.”

“It’s really premature” to judge the success of mayoral control in terms of academic gains, he said. “We’ve seen some successes in terms of cleaning up administration, but also a lot of shortsighted and not so very well-thought-out things.”

The main problem is that none of the governance changes “addresses underlying problems: desperately poor and isolated kids, undertrained and demoralized staff, buildings that are falling apart,” Mr. Orfield added. “There are big problems in these cities.”

That’s exactly what troubles Michigan’s House minority leader, Democrat Kwame M. Kilpatrick.

“We have deep, economically based problems in Detroit,” said Rep. Kilpatrick, 28, a former Detroit teacher. “It just doesn’t follow that if you change a governance system you’ll solve some of those problems.”

But others argue that such a shift might ultimately benefit Detroit’s poor families by bringing social and education services together under one umbrella.

“Governance changes by themselves don’t guarantee that the underlying causes of poverty will be addressed,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based education group led by governors and corporate executives. But, he added, “it just makes sense to try to concentrate more authority and responsibility in one place. If you’ve got strong mayors in place, I think it’s healthy.”

No Guarantees

Proponents of a mayoral takeover in Detroit, including its sponsors, acknowledge that an overhaul in governance is not by itself going to work miracles. In Detroit, a high-poverty district that ranks among Michigan’s lowest performers on statewide tests and sees fewer than 30 percent of its high school students graduate in four years, most agree on the need for major changes beyond governance.

“Merely substituting one board for another is not going to do it,” Mr. Archer said. The mayor, a former state supreme court justice, taught learning-disabled students before earning a law degree in 1970.

In addition to new money to help lower class sizes, Mr. Archer said that he’s pressing for provisions in the reform legislation that would enable him to set up mandatory summer school and new after-school and teacher-training programs.

“This isn’t going to magically turn around the system,” said state Sen. Dan L. DeGrow, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill who represents a district about 50 miles north of Detroit. “But the current structure won’t ever allow for the improvements we’re hoping for.”

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Power Shift for Detroit Moves Ahead


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