Firing the Detroit school board may be good for the Motor City

So what if it was a legal technicality? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has found a way to keep an incompetent Board of Education from doing lasting damage to Detroit’s 69,000 remaining public-school pupils: He said seven of the board’s eleven members were elected to geographic districts when they were supposed to serve at-large, the district’s enrollment having fallen below the threshold that allows representation by geography. He filed a lawsuit last week to unseat them, prompting editorial writers in the Motor City to ask why he didn’t complain last year when school board elections put those members in office. But they know why:  Schuette filed his lawsuit the day after the dysfunctional board assumed greater control of the district from a weakened “emergency manager.” The A.G. had taken his own emergency action.

There is ample justification. For years, Michigan had limited the board’s powers by designating an emergency manager to oversee district spending. The board had nominal oversight over academics but lost that authority early last year when the legislature gave the emergency manager oversight over all school operations, together with the ability to tear up union contracts.

But it didn’t last. A voter registration group backed by the state’s public employee unions (teachers included, of course) gathered enough signatures to put the strengthened law up for a referendum vote this November. The state certified that ballot item last week, suspending the law pending voter approval and restoring the Detroit school board’s authority over academic matters (the emergency manager kept financial oversight under the old law). The school board responded with gusto and swiftly approved a contract with a superintendent who promised to bring “ebonics-anecdotal instruction” to the predominantly African-American district.

The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press both dinged Schuette’s own move, not because they wanted the school board intact – one writer called the board “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence” – but because they thought the attorney general had just weakened  the case for a powerful emergency manager. They fear that unions will stir up popular reaction to a perceived abusive use of state power and succeed in repealing a good law.  

 Of course, what Schuette did carries political risks. But he also may have helped voters to understand how desperate the situation is.

State interventions in Detroit aren’t new; former Governor John Engler engineered a takeover of the school system in 1999. Six years later, voters brought back the elected school board—but it’s never been given full control of the district, which remained an education disaster area as well as economically distressed and hemorrhaging enrollment. Indeed, the performance was so abysmal that Arne Duncan in 2010 called it “arguably the worst urban school district in the country.”

Some commentators contend that it’s better to let Detroit flame out and maybe some kind of phoenix will arise from the ashes. But nothing so magical seems likely. Nor is it necessary. Just as New Orleans found opportunity to reform public education after Hurricane Katrina, Michigan recently created its own recovery school district that now controls 15 of the state’s worst-performing schools (all presently  in Detroit).

There may be opportunity, too, in firing school board members that Detroit would be better off without. A clever legal strategy, a la Schuette, is obviously not a durable way to improve and sustain public education in Detroit. But he will have done some good if his audacious move serves to alarm and energize the voters who will determine in November whether to side with the unions or with the kids.

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