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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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  • 1

    The announcement that our state failed again in being a recipient of the Race to the Top contest in Federal Educational funds must be connected to the saga of the insanity of having the Mayor of Detroit take on responsibility for DPS. One theme is prominent in our state of late is that any governmental activity, oversight, intervention is not always a good or productive teachable moment.

    Clearly the very idea of having states engaged in a contest for the educational futures of our students is an offensive proposition yet none of our state's educational leaders including unions, non-profits, and even activists objected to this farce. Equally as lethal and revealing is the notion that government officials should control elected school boards. Contrary to the talking points of those supporting Mayoral control of school districts there is no demonstrable proof that having a Mayor of any city take over a school district is appropriate on any level.

    Finally at some point it is critical for people to object to the politics of education when our federal government seeks to become the conduit of such political movements. Federal officials Like Arne Duncan have no right to invade the voting rights of citizens in local school district issues. It is patently obvious he does not have a clue about education when he insert contests as the way forward to address education .

    • 1.1

      "Clearly the very idea of having states engaged in a contest for the educational futures of our students is an offensive proposition"? Declaring that an idea like this is de facto offensive sounds like exactly the kind of thinking Darrell is criticizing. Correct me if I'm wrong, Darrell--I don't want to put words in your mouth.

  • 2

    Any issue surrounding Detroit tends to generate a lot of smoke. There's been so much division, so much unfinished business, so little experience with actual dialogue that our baggage easily obscures the actual issues at hand. I have no idea whether it makes any sense to have the mayor take over the schools; as a teacher in suburban Boston I can't imagine that it does. But your larger point is right on -- whatever Detroit decides about its schools ought to be decided based on some kind of rational dialogue.

  • 3

    Objecting to opinions without having substancefor the objection and then seeking the approval of another to support that very objection sounds like a person who has no opinion worthy of injecting or respecting...

    Who is arbiter of what is a rational discourse?? One could reason that those who have failed in the proposition of superior educational outcomes in the state and in the city(detroit) have almost lost that privledge...

    It is imperative now that my firm's 'Universal Candidacy" be given an opportunity to work given the legacy of failed leadership in the city and our state with regard to education and other critical issues...

  • 4

    This is truly a perilous moment wherein a narrative is being offered up that is so Orwellian it deserves outright rejection

    Underlying the ballot question for Detroit voters is the narrative that since Bing is an elected offical the voters should relinquish all of their other voting privledges and sucumb to this convoluted notion that a vote for Bing because he is en ellected offical means all other voting rights for elected officals is not required nor revelant...This is a full frontal assualt on voting rights of city voters...

    What's next? ..Will the governor claim that voters in city who vote for her no longer need to vote for the mayor...This could be a blueprint for the entire disenfanchisement of voting rights for any elected office in the city..

    One vote for Mayor is all the votes city residents get!!!!!

  • 5

    The Race to the Top program is a farce birthed when Arne Duncan was superintendent of Chicago schools. The idea of mayorial control in Chicago has not been successful.

    What is lost in all the discourse are the kids. For the past forty years the Detroit educational system has eroded to current status of worst in the country. Something must be done.

    The mayor has his hands full managing the city, the city council should not have stake in the schools and the school board is dysfunctional. Here is an alternative:

    Create a selection committee to search for and appoint the superintendent. Once the super is hired the selection committee selects a 7 member schoolboard.

    The make up of the selection committee consists of:
    Mr. Robert Bobb, one member each from the existing school board, from the principals, from the teachers, a parent and an academic from a university.

    I don't know if it will work. But at least the decisions will be made by people who understand the issues of educations and all stakeholders will have a voice. Rest assured it will not do worse than the current mess.

  • 6

    I stop short of assuming that the worst-case scenario will happen if Detroit's public school system falls under mayoral control. I have a problem with people who say they 'hate' the current board/system (and the behavior of board members) but mayoral control is automatically a non-starter for them. You either want change or you don't. People act as if DPS didn't have grave problems until Bobb was appointed by Granholm.

    And let's address the elephant in the room: I also have a problem with the way some local activists and officials have latched on to the existing structure of DPS (as well as Cobo Hall, the Water Department., etc.) as a "black owned business" by cultural default, and so any existing proposition for reform, especially radical reform, is categorized as a power-grab by quasi-anonymous Caucasian power-brokers in Lansing or the Metro suburbs. I hear "They want to" (as in, "they want to take over fill-in-the-blank) so much you would think that "T.H.E.Y., Inc." was a corporation based out of Bloomfield or somewhere. I'm dead sick of it.

    Black political leadership has been at the helm of Detroit local government for nearly 40 years now. And here is where we are. Doesn't mean that local leadership is corrupt or inept by default, or that everything that has gone on here is all the fault of Detroit leadership. But Detroit leadership of the past and present must bear some culpability as well for not having the vision to address the things that Detroit faces now.

    Too many folks here have come to embrace a certain myopic form of Afrocentrism that automatically assumes the worst of all other ethnic/racial groups while overly romanticizing our own, uncritical to a fault in many cases. Look at all the folks who still see the junior Mr. Kilpatrick as a blameless victim of a (white) plot against a "powerful black man". Same goes for Sam Riddle.

    I'm weary of the political schizophrenia here. To me, it speaks ill of my fellow urban Detroiters when this reflexive nativism that exists just beneath the surface here comes up on every important local issue. Look at the recall campaign already against Bing. Let's say it goes through and Bing is recalled by November 2010-- then what? another go-round of special elections throughout 2011?

  • 7

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