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Should the Mayor of Detroit Control the City's Schools?

A new plan presented by an array of non-profit heavy hitters is hoping to reinvent public education in Detroit.

The group, calling itself Excellent Schools Detroit, announced last week that it planned to replace failing Detroit schools with 70 new ones and make a $200-million initial investment -- a plan unprecedented in scope anywhere in the country. The group has commitments from the Gates Foundation and other national groups willing to come to Detroit, said Carol Goss, CEO and president of the Skillman Foundation, a key leader in the effort.

Along with the push to build new schools, key proposals in the plan include the elimination of the city school board and the transfer of control of the district to the mayor.

The idea of mayoral control of schools, which experts say has yielded concrete improvements in other big-city districts like New York and Washington, D.C., has been a hot-button issue in and around Detroit for years. As recently as 2004, Detroit voters shot down a proposal that would've given control of the district to then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

And while Mayor Dave Bing says he's open to the idea, it's not like he's rushing to throw himself on that potential political landmine. (Which begs the question of why you'd give control to a guy who isn't exactly clamoring for the authority.)

Still, as is often the case when it comes to schools, I've got mixed feelings about the idea. I know that the concept of locally elected school boards has a long and generally progressive history, and I respect that to the fullest. But damn it, we've got people leading the school board who can't put together a grammatically correct sentence. That is not cool.

Further, the smart progressives in education in the city, the sort of people I'd like to see on any urban school board, aren't flocking to sit on the Detroit board of ed. Meanwhile, our children continue to lag educationally.

Still, bring up the issue of mayoral control and many Detroiters shudder, which makes many people looking in on us wonder: What exactly would be so bad about the mayor running the Detroit schools?

Or, perhaps, what would be worse?

The corruption and cronyism? The incompetence? The mishandling of money? I'm not so sure.

There are other concerns I hear, though, that are worth considering: One is the fear that concentrating power over the district in the mayor's hands might make it easier to shut out grassroots groups, parent networks, education organizations and others who press critical issues that politicians might rather avoid. Detroit voters rightly consider electing the school board to be part of their say in how things are run -- even if does mean they wind up with some boobs in the bunch.

And yes, although voters also get the chance to elect the mayor, I still think you risk costing Detroiters a basic and very vital sense of enfranchisement by taking away the school board (a legitimate fear whenever you talk about depriving any American of a vote on anything, I think). And remember, these are the folks whose children everyone is hoping to teach.

Also, I'm not sure about the wisdom of asking a man who is currently overseeing a broke city to turn around and take on a broke school district, too. I realize that the quality of schools are an essential part of life in any city and, thus, any mayor's concern, but Mayor Bing has plenty on his plate now.

Finally, as much as I hear about how mayoral control works in places like D.C., the truth is, those districts continue to be troubled, too. It's not like any politicians anywhere -- or their appointees -- have come up with a magical formula that's working en masse.

Conversely, though, I do like the idea of real centralized authority for the schools. I'm sick of 12 different excuses and agendas from 11 different school board members in any given year, and I'm sick the takeovers that their antics make easier. I'm sick of not knowing whom to hold accountable and of questioning who's working in the interest of someone other than our children. And cities seem to get along well enough without boards for parks-and-rec, say, so why is an 11-member school board so essential to Detroit?

I grew up in this city, in one of its roughest neighborhoods and amid one of its bloodiest eras ever. And I survived largely because of education. As a result, how and whether our children are learning means plenty to me, so I'm more than willing to embrace even the most politically vexing ideas -- if it means our babies have a better chance at better educations and, thus, better lives.

Of course, that doesn't mean mayoral control is any answer, but the question it highlights -- how do we re-fashion an institution that will ensure that even the worst-off in one of America's most depressed cities receive an education that will nurture and sustain them -- certainly demands a lot more than we've been giving.

I can't say I favor giving the schools over to the mayor, but what do you think? Should the mayor run the Detroit schools? Is the current school board sufficient? Is there a third or fourth way that Detroiters need to consider? Feel free to jump in with your thoughts.

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  • 1

    I'm really not sure that Dave Bing, whom I admire and respect, is the answer especially since he seems so reluctant to accept the job. He has enough on his plate. But one thing I am certain of - eliminate that school board!! Every time education is the topic, the discussion centers around the board - the board this, the board that. They are so self-consumed by their own welfare and self importance that they don't realize why they are there in the 1st place. Dump them!

  • 2

    Public education is in chaos all over this country. A recently released report shows us that students in the United States perform in the bottom third of 24 industrialized countries. The crisis in education demands not just people knowledgeable about finances and business but it also requires educators who are well-trained and held responsible for the continued academic progress of children. There is so much urgency to get things right - the Mayor of this city could not possibly juggle this responsibility with those of his Office.

    The Mayor of a city of Detroit needs to spend 32 hours a day (yes...the days need to be longer for that task) figuring out how to downsize a city that has been in trouble for twenty years. No matter who the Mayor is - his or her focus should be on the city in crisis...not the city and school district in crisis !!!

  • 3

    I think you miss the point. The plan (I read it at that was issued today did not suggest that mayor control is the solution to the problems with DPS. Nor is it suggesting that the mayor himself run the public school system. Rather, I think they are trying to suggest that mayoral control creates the conditions and opportunity for change to happen. In my opinion, Mayor control is about the ability to hire a strong, academic leader and having a singular point of accountability not about the mayor moving his office to the Fisher Building.

    National education leaders have said they will never come to Detroit because they won't work for our crazy school board! Would you? We know this yet we still complain when we get unqualified candidates like Connie Calloway. We all know the school board doesn't work, but we shoot down alternatives as if we could do worse! If not the board and if not the mayor, then what? Should we just let kids suffer because we'd rather sit on our hands than take on tough political issues? Oh yeah, I forgot, that is exactly what we have been doing!

  • 4

    Perhaps that is what YOU have been doing....Allow me to clarify...I am in the schools everyday with students who have a range of academic, behaviorial, and social challenges. It will take much more than a person with expertise in budgets to get a real grip.

    As to your point concerning the school board...they are not in control of anything right now...Bobb is...the School Board is a challenge but it is in addition to - not to the exclusion of the chaos currently knnown as DPS.

    Real Data: Prior to the arrival of the manager, the high school where I teach was on its way to consecutive years of real academic improvement. Our students were being prepared for College and work and were provided with opportunities and support made available, in part, because of a carefully selected staff by strong and knowledgeable administrators. Thanks to Bobb...the school environment has been totally and negatively altered, the staff was broken up and the administrators were sent to other places. The current student body is not getting an equal quality education to that of students prior to the arrival of the manager.

    To the dismay of all of the Bobb supporters, there are real people out here who are working in the schools with the kids everyday and we are clueless as to what is being evaluated when all praises are given to Bobb. The children, who must be the focus of all of his decsions, are not getting what they need...or what they deserve...

  • 5

    As the scholars Chubb and Moe have argued, too much politics can get in the way of education. That's happened in the DPS. Altering the system of governance so that the mayor alone has the authority to hire and fire a superintendent would diminish politics somewhat and the endless and excessive intrusion of politics into matters that are largely administrative. Unfortunately, finding an educator with the leadership abilities, administrative/management knowledge and skills, and energy to run a huge urban district like DPS is unlikely. The best model is probably decentralization--that is, empowering principal and teachers and then holding them accountable for results. There's ample research to show that the factors that will impact student academic performance are mostly at the school level. The school reforms in Texas may be a good model for the DPS.

  • 6

    The continued re-election of the laughable and incompetent school board in the city of Detroit amounts to a strange form of collective child abuse perpetrated on the city's students by the voting electorate. The school board must be recalled in its entirety and those currently sitting on the board should be barred from running again for a specified length of time - I'm thinking ten years or so.

    That being said, I believe that Dave Bing has every intention to move the city in a positive direction. However he simply cannot possibly have enough time to properly repair the completely broken school system.

    Within ANY district, close examination shows that the most succesful schools are those run by the most effective principals. These individuals are capable of recognizing, hiring and motivating exemplary staff - which benefits the student population more than any other factor possibly could.

    I advocate assigning a budget to each school and then allowing the principal to run the school in the way that he/she sees fit. Obviously, certain standards/minimums must be set and No Child Left Behind has to be kept in mind.

    Make it clear at the outset of each year that the principals of the bottom 5% of schools will be let go - they will be continually competing to keep their positions and improve each school as much as possible each and every year.

    Successful companies within the private sector (including charter schools) operate on the model all the time - there is no reason to believe that it can't work in a public school system as well.

  • 7


    Clearly, Kwame was far less than ill suited.

    Politicians screwed up on the first Bond Issue by bringing in a Construction Manager.

    Their notion of what a Construction Manager is, is whacked.

    That has happened on this Bond Issue, another Construction Manager.

    Finding Integrous people is a difficult chore.

    And the Freep or Carol had better come up with some Population curves awfully soon so we can see what the hell is going on. Maps only show one point in time. The curves show the trends among many other things.

    And we had better have a good grasp of the exact trends and not the bafflegab.


    Just the facts. Where are the facts?

    Detroit has a great number of very beautiful school buildings that can undergo adaptive reuse rather than Demolition and complete new Construction at a great saving in money.

    There is absolutely no need to build all new school buildings all over the place.

    Just look at the horrors left over by the Last Bond issue and it's Mismanagement.

    Give us the facts!!!

    We got the facts on the performance. Obviously the Ed Schools teaching grade school teachers have UTTERLY FAILED! The product of their philosophies is an unmitigated disaster. Rote memory must be reinstituted immediately.

    We used to worry about the Russians. They simply could not have developed a better way to undermine the U.S.

    Let us see the population statistics and the growth and decay data.


  • 8

    This is what we need!

    Not a cackamamie light rail running between downtown and the New Center.

    Not a thousand new school building.

    Where are the damned facts?

    And where is the PLAN?



  • 9

    The mayor like Bobb are out of their element with regard to academic issues and related concerns..

    This is more nonsense and politics at the expense of the city and the students..

    I am so tired of ringing this belll.. I think I will leave the area...I have had enough...

  • 10

    As a 27 year old with no children of my own I might be over stepping my bounds here but ....... I think that parents should start taking some responsibility for their children's education. Far to often these parents have no idea as to what their offspring are doing in the classroom.

    My parents instilled in me at a young age a respect for education and knowledge. Even though my parents divorced when I was 8, they both took an active role in making sure that I was keeping up with my studies and not slacking off. While I hated them for it at the time, I now thank them. Their insistence that I work to the best of my ability allowed me to go to one of the top 50 universities in the country and to be proud of my mental capabilities. Even if I did get laid off because of the current economy I still have the best education possible because my parents pushed me to work hard and be responsible for my own actions.

  • 11

    Nope. The mayor can barely control the city and it's functions... running the schools would be another distraction.

  • 12

    Why not break the District into smaller parts? Major car companies have dealerships that pay a franchise fee to operate their stores. Detroit could break the district into four smaller Districts. Accountability would be much easier to establish with a quadrant that made up 20,000 students as opposed to 80,000.

    Whether the mayor takes control or not is not the issue. The issue is in the last 20 years they have had more than 10 changes in administration. Every year there is some new program the District buys into. I can remember Cambridge, Baldridge, Lorraine Monroe, Smaller Learning Communities, Reading First, and now there is the 400 million dollar publishing company deal. Let's pick one and master it as opposed to just receiving some exposure.

    The district wants to bring in the best leaders from around the country. Tell me who is going to move to Detroit for 80,000.00 dollars a year, after concessions, the current principal's salaray, when other districts pay upwards of a 100,000 dollars a year for the same job and half the headaches.

    As well, how will the District deal with the issues of violence? This is the number one reason people have taken their children out of Detroit. What parent wants to send their child to a school and have to worry about whehter the child will come home in one piece. Rich or poor the vast majority of people love their children. A major network of leaders, church folks, teachers and childrens need to start a grass roots efforts to change the mentality that someone needs to get beat down because they "grimmed" you.

    Finally, there are some great teachers in Detroit. They work hard, they could thrive quite well in a suburban district becasue they have sheer passion for what they do. Unfortunately, there are some really poor teachers as well. The district could take a page out of some other districts and make prospective

  • 13

    And there are some very bad teachers in the lower grades who think that rote memory, fine penmanship, are no longer important. They were taught that way in the Ed Schools and bought into the nonsense.

    They think that they are teaching the students how to "think". Utter nonsense and we have seen the product of that philosophy.


  • 14

    Those teachers need to undergo a reeducation process. Like it or not, and sooner than later.


  • 15

    I hit the wrong button and was unable to finish my comment. The gist of what I was saying was that new teachers or those being reorganized ought to have to teach a lesson to a panel of individuals with a vested interest. Because one has a degree in education, doesn't make one qualified to impart knowledge. There are many "book smart" people, but it takes a person with a varied bag of tricks to impart knowledge to students who are extremely at risk from jump street.

    This is not the 1950s and children don't jump at the teacher's command. Moreover, it will never return to that style of learning ever again. Schools need to keep pace with the technological advances of society. The only thing from the 50s that should return is moral education. Teachers should be teaching students the value of being a productive citizen, repsect for self and others as these are the tools that will carry a person all throughout their life.

    In terms of teaching, I wish people would spend some time in a Detroit classroom. They would see you can't blame the teachers for the ills of society. This is a community issue that has to be resolved by those in the community.

    There must be a value shift and perhaps this recession will bring that shift in values about.

  • 16

    I'm not sure if mayoral control is the answer, but I think it's a misnomer to say voters have an inherent right to elect a school board. The rights of students to receive a quality education is a civil rights issue that supersedes the right to elect a school board. Maybe the federal government, under the guise of the 14th Amendment, should take over the district during this turn around period.

    It's cruelly perverse to hear African-American politicians suggest that the tyranny of a majority is more important than the education of African-American children. To hear the DPS board apologists talk about the sanctity of local control and complaining about outsiders and interlopers, you'd think this was Little Rock circa 1957.


  • 17

    Dyspathy comments reflect why no one pays attention to him or his site..Black folks can focus on more than one agenda and issue at a time....Not only is the quest for home rule and an elected school board the right approach and demand but Black voters in the city should reject any back door efforts to give the mayor control of DPS for a number of reasons including the very proof such an idea has utility..Folks just love to experiment with Black folks voting rights and educational choices..

    What is really perverse is to read a white poster like Dyspathy lecture to Black folks about the civil rights movement and the education of Black children....

    When can I stop laughing?????

  • 18

    I wonder what Thrasher finds so perverse about one American arguing that all Americans deserve the protections of the 14th Amendment. Is Thrasher suggesting that the U.S. Constitution isn't applicable in Detroit?

    Detroit's children are entitled to a quality education just like kids in...oh let's just pick a district at random...Birmingham.

    Test scores aren't the end all be all, but when students across the district are unable to score better than random guess, it's clear that the current system failed the very constituents it was entrusted to serve. The right of Detroit's children to receive an education supersedes the supposed right to elect a school board.

    The only relevant question to organizing the governance of a public school district is whether or not the organization MOST benefits the district's students. I probably won't get dinner from Reverend David Murray's food van tonight for saying this, but the school board system has failed Detroit's students.


  • 19

    What I continue to find perverse is defensive and negative white posters like WF who have a life long contempt for city residents especially if they are Black now claiming to care about their constiutional rights..

    WL please spare me the phony rightousness..I repect you more when you are displaying your usual rant and angst about the city..

    Posters like WL and others are part of that group of losers that continue to fail the students in the city by advocating for an unelected school board under the direction and control of a centralized state goverment with a lethal track record with regard to the making a difference in Detroit...

    Posters like Wl and those who support his backward notions of democracy hinder the students in the city. It always revealing how underdeveloped thinkers like Wl have no problem taking away the rights of others...

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