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What's Your Point?

A message to those pushing an initiative to have the mayor take control of the Detroit Public Schools: Please make a cogent argument.

While I admit that I'm against handing Detroit's troubled school district to Detroit's troubling mayor, I can't say that a real debate about reform isn't worthwhile. It most certainly is. Our schools are struggling. Our teachers are overwhelmed. Too many of our students don't know squat. And we're saddled with a board that's too big and still too burdened with an excess of idiots. We cannot keep going as we have.

So I'm not saying there is no argument to be made for mayoral control. It's just that I haven't heard a single one from proponents of the measure that makes an ounce of sense. Instead, I'm reading that there are petitions with 30,000 signatures that prove people want it. Well, aside from the fact that nobody ever verified those petition signatures, I don't think that the popularity of a particular idea automatically makes it a good one. Yes, people should be heard, and politicians should listen. But a petition ain't an argument.

As a corollary to this, I hear reports that the passion at the City Council meetings suggest that people want mayoral control of the schools. However, every time I look up, City Hall is jam-packed with hundreds of people screaming against it. The "pro" side is usually outnumbered two to one, sometimes three to one. This ain't about who yells loudest, of course, or wears the coolest school reform T-shirts or gets in the best wisecracks. Still, it's interesting that, despite the insistence that "the people" want this initiative, most of those piping up seem firmly against it. Doesn't seem to be much of an argument there.

Neither is there one in telling voters, as has been said, that a bunch preachers favor giving Mayor Dave Bing control of the schools. So damn what? Many of the preachers in this town are as bought and paid for as any of the slugs who ever stole on behalf the Kwame Kilpatrick administration. Some of them also run crappy charter schools that have only added to Detroit's educational woes and do little right except get the minister paid. The Motown Taliban will come out for or against just about anything as long as they know there's something in it for them, cash, a plot of land, a services contract. Telling me that a political idea is good because a gang of connected ministers said so is tantamount to expressing your position by lolling your tongue and rolling your eyes.

Not only do you not score points; you're likely to have some deducted.

Oh, and also please quit conducting phony polls that show that people feel exactly how you want them to. The thin smokescreen makes you come off like a bad magic act.

Perhaps the one point I have heard that's worth seriously listening to came not from someone actually fighting for the measure, but from The Wife, who covers the public schools for the Detroit Free Press. "There are people who think that we can't get a good school superintendent here because no one wants to work for the Detroit school board," she said to me the other day in the car. "Nobody wants to deal with all of their in-fighting and politics. It creates too much turnover. It might be easier to get a good superintendent to stay here if he or she knew she had to report only to the mayor. Once you can get someone to stay, you can get a consistent plan in place and follow that plan for the next several years."

I think there's some logic there. What superintendent wants to enter a situation where he or she won't be allowed to do his/her level best or will have to report to 11 different people with 11 different agendas? But the same can be said for, say, a police chief, right? And in Detroit, the mayor has always appointed the top cop. Still, we're now going on our seventh police chief in the past decade, and our fourth in the past two years. And the Detroit Police Department is at least as big a mess as the Detroit Public Schools — even with the federal government adding an extra set of eyes.

And who's to say that City Hall wouldn't add to the turmoil? At one point, this city had three mayors in the course of a year. And the one we have now, in addition to suggesting that he doesn't want to run for another term, doesn't seem to get much right in the one term he has struggled through. Further, there's scant proof that districts where mayors pick the school supers work much better than board-run districts. Baltimore, Chicago, New York City — they all boast their versions of Cass Tech and Renaissance, two of Detroit's premier high schools, but by and large none of these cities are exactly beacons of educational progress or testaments to the wonders of mayoral control. If there's one thing I've realized while studying this debate, it's that mayor's can control the schools and still very much neglect them.

As I've said before, I know we can't keep going like we are. For me, the debate is about which brand of reform we should institute, not whether we should continue with the status quo, as the City Council has asked. But I'm not totally down on the school board, either. I've met its members, and I recognize that not all of them are idiots or alleged child abusers or admitted pervs. Tyrone Winfrey, for one, is an admissions administrator for the University of Michigan and very bright and conscientious man. Yes, he's made what I think are missteps, such as supporting Detroit's last disastrous superintendent, Connie Calloway, but Winfrey's no clown. He's the sort of leader you'd expect to find on a competent board anywhere in the country.

Problem is, he also received far fewer votes than the likes of the Rev. David Murray and the sad and now-ousted Otis Mathis. So in addition to suffering from both brain drain and a profound leadership void, the city is also overrun with voters who have a tough time making good political choices. (Actually, that's a statewide problem.) Moreover, I don't know if we can even find 11 people like Winfrey to man the board, even if folks would vote them in. The school board just isn't a great draw for many bright minds around here.

That's one reason I think the school board needs to shrink. Shrinking it will also reflect the decline in population in the city and in the district. I think seven seats is good, and every seat needs to be tied to one of the district's regions, same as we're now trying to tie council seats to districts. None of this "at large" stuff. And yes, there needs to be input from key stakeholders like the mayor, although I'm not sure adding another layer of approval solves more problems than it creates.

We need reform badly, same as we need more involved parents, more dedicated teachers and more vested institutions. I don't have the answers, I admit. And there are no guarantees. But I just want a system that we can be fairly confident will work, be that a school board, a hybrid model of the school board or Bing taking to the math classes Jamie Escalante-style. As this issue wends its way through our body politic, Detroiters should be willing to listen to any smart arguments and review any strong evidence for any system that's being suggested.

But desperate parents deserve proof — not just polls, petitions and preachers.

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