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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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