BRIAN DICKERSON: Lansing’s schools plan imperils Detroit’s resurrection
Steven Rhodes wore the wistful expression of a man who wished he had stayed retired.
Instead here he was, no longer a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge but still in Detroit, trying to convince a roomful of skeptical journalists that Michigan's largest school system would survive Lansing's latest attempt to cut off its life support.
Just 18 months ago, Rhodes was proudly presiding over the nearly miraculous resolution of Detroit's Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Surveying the crowd of antagonistic stakeholders who'd grudgingly submitted to the grand bargain brokered by Rhodes and chief mediator Gerald Rosen, the outgoing judge was confident he'd provided Detroit with a plausible path to recovery
Now, Rhodes has reason to worry that the same governor who offered the city a new lease on life three summers ago is poised to sign its death warrant. The instrument of execution: a cynically mislabeled "rescue package" for Detroit schools, adopted by Republican state legislators who want nothing more than to euthanize DPS once and for all.
If you think this is hyperbole, you don't understand what's in the legislation.
Rhodes does, and he knows Lansing's prescription for DPS jeopardizes everything he and Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr accomplished when they shepherded the city through its Chapter 9 ordeal.
Always a precise man, Rhodes has become downright circumspect since Snyder named him the latest in a long procession of emergency managers to oversee Detroit's struggling school system. (Rhodes prefers the title "transition manager," which emphasizes his determination to be DPS's last such state-appointed usurper.) So when he visited the Free Press Thursday just hours after lawmakers gutted the DPS legislation he and other stakeholders had patiently shepherded through the state Senate, Rhodes politely declined the opportunity to condemn the inferior substitute or its legislative authors.
But Rhodes is also a realist; he has neither the patience nor the aptitude for putting lipstick on a pig. So instead of characterizing the DPS legislation as "a new beginning" or "a good start," he methodically outlined what the bills do (acknowledged the state's responsibility for the school district's multibillion-dollar debt, accumulated mostly on the watch of Rhodes' Lansing-appointed predecessors) and what they don't do (provide sufficient working capital to make DPS classrooms habitable and keep the school district solvent after the term-limited governor and the incumbent state Legislature are gone).
The survival of DPS is in jeopardy, Rhodes conceded, unless Snyder makes good on his pledge to find at least another $50 million to supplement the $617 million GOP lawmakers grudgingly appropriated in a straight party-line vote Thursday morning.
If you've been listening to the disingenuous rhetoric Republican leaders like House Speaker Kevin Cotter have deployed to defend his party's rescue plan, you may be puzzled by my assertion that Cotter and his colleagues have it in for DPS.
The cheapest way out
But make no mistake: Cotter and his caucus — and the coalition of for-profit charter operators and right-wing ideologues who have bankrolled their ascendancy — are determined to put the state's largest school district out of business once and for all. In their eyes, Detroiters have forfeited the right to exercise sovereignty over their children's education, and Republicans are determined to transfer it to a charter movement that has minimal accountability to any government body.
Wait, you say. If GOP lawmakers are really out to bankrupt DPS, why did they just hand the district a $617-million bailout?
And if Detroit parents really want to exercise control over their children's education, isn't an unregulated education marketplace in which traditional public schools and charters compete for students (and the taxpayer support tied to them) the ideal venue in which to exercise their consumer discretion?
The answer to the first question is simple. As eager as Republicans are to put DPS out of business for good, they know Michigan can't afford a Chapter 9 bankruptcy that would put state taxpayers on the hook for as much as $3 billion. The $617 million the Legislature appropriated is the minimum necessary to avoid such a reckoning until a) incumbent legislators are no longer in office and b) charter operators are better poised to fill the vacuum created by the district's complete collapse.
The answer to the second question is more complicated.
When Detroiters talk about asserting control of their own schools, they're talking about the sort of corporate authority that voters in most school districts exercise through an elected school board.
But in Detroit, most of that corporate control is in the hands of charter operators who don't answer to such popularly elected body. The bills passed by the Legislature assure that neither the school board scheduled to resume control of DPS next January nor the Detroit Education Commission Rhodes, Snyder, and a bipartisan coalition of education reformers wanted to establish will exercise any authority over charter schools.
Imagine, if you will, that the law requires Michigan to supply a life-sustaining vitamin supplement to every child in the state. In most communities, the state sends sufficient supplies to a group of officials parents have elected to decide where, when and how the supplement will be distributed. But in Detroit, a majority of legislators think most of the supplement should be distributed through pharmacies owned by CVS or Walgreen's, which are concentrated in the most densely populous and affluent Detroit neighborhoods.
Why Detroiters balk
That is the sort of local control Republicans envision for Detroit — a marketplace in which parents can shop anywhere they want, but private entrepreneurs decide where to locate the stores, when they're open for business, and whether the supplement they're distributing meets the specs mandated by the state Constitution.
Detroiters recognize this as a reincarnation of the apartheid-style educational arrangements the U.S. Supreme Court struck down more than a half century ago. And leaders like Rhodes and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan recognize the double-standard Republican legislators seek to codify in Detroit as a dagger aimed not just at DPS, but at the city itself.
What an ironic tragedy if Snyder, who has acted more courageously than any governor in the last half-century to give Detroit a fresh start, were to kill its recovery by condemning its children to substandard schools.
Contact Brian Dickerson at email@example.com.