Print Friendly and PDF

Detroit Regional Chamber Testifies Regarding DPS Reform

This week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Brad Williams, vice president of government relations, testified in front of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee on behalf of Chamber President Sandy Baruah during a hearing on education reform bills (House Bills 5382-5387). Williams testified on the importance of reforming Detroit Schools and the district’s impact to the state and region’s economic future.

Read the testimony below:

The Detroit Regional Chamber is dedicated to creating a climate for children in Detroit to receive an education that matches the quality of the rest of the state and outpaces other urban districts. The business community in our region sees this as a critical need for our region’s success.

Beyond the Chamber’s advocacy for public policies that create a better learning environment for all students, we also lead programmatically in the region.

  • For over 25 years, the Chamber has administered the Detroit Compact that, in partnership with our public universities and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, provides a last-dollar scholarship for any student in most Detroit public schools who meet academic criteria. More recently, in collaboration with the Michigan Educational Excellence Foundation, we have administered a scholarship program for students in all Detroit schools, whether they are charter, parochial or traditional public schools, to receive a last-dollar scholarship to one of five community colleges in our region.
  • I sit on the Board of Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization with the mission to ensure that every child in Detroit receives a superior education, regardless of governance model.
  • I served on the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children, which provided the framework for proposals that both the Governor and the Mayor are supporting.
  • We have been a pro-charter organization. Our vice president for talent and education sits on the board of MAPSA and is a former chair. Four current Chamber employees serve on the boards of individual charter schools and the Chamber has undertaken an effort to recruit and train board members for individual charter schools.

In short, the Chamber is not a newcomer to this conversation regarding the need to drastically improve the quality of education in Detroit for students in traditional public schools and charter schools.

It is in our realization that a healthy economy cannot only be measured by a snapshot of our present but also building a sustainable infrastructure that promotes future growth that led us to adopt our “Forward Detroit” strategy.

Forward Detroit is an effort to build on our region’s momentum during this unique moment in time in order to build a growing economy that is sustainable and leads the nation. Forward Detroit utilizes numerous efforts in our organization and our region to impact measurable outcomes under five pillars, including reading proficiency rates and population growth.

We believe that creating a system of education worthy of our great city is critical to our success as a region and ultimately as a state. Currently, the Detroit region lags its peers and the nation in the number of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Our percentage of 28.1 percent is more than 15 points below Boston and almost a full point below the national average. Our region will not be able to compete in this important metric unless our biggest city, with over 100,000 school-age students is providing the level of education that allows these students to succeed in universities, community colleges, skilled trades or community technical education.

When I talk to our members, this issue is almost always at the top of their minds. They are concerned about our talent level as a state, and on a more granular level they are concerned that the students in Detroit aren’t being educated in a manner that allows for their success.

The Chamber broadly supports your efforts to create a system for public education in Detroit that is positioned for success. Our board has asked us to focus our advocacy on three key principles. One is clearly addressed in this package, one is partially addressed and one is not addressed at all.

First, the Chamber supports the debt relief mechanism outlined in this legislation. As I mentioned before, there have been external factors that have served as primary drivers of the DPS debt.

We should not cast blame on any individual or governance model for the situation that DPS finds itself in. The de-population of the city, the expansion of choices for parents and the overwhelming legacy costs would be nearly impossible to manage with a traditional board, a reform board, or emergency management. However, no schools with the challenges that DPS face can be successful when $1,100 of each student’s foundation grant goes to pay debt service. Ultimately, the real goal here is to provide the children of Detroit with the education they deserve and we believe that debt relief is vital to that effort.

Second, the Chamber supports the return of local control to traditional public schools in Detroit. The Chamber has chosen to not be overly prescriptive in this matter, and we hope that legislative leadership, the Mayor and Governor can resolve this question in a manner that is fair to all.

I am sensitive to the fact that this is the second time that the Legislature has been asked to help with a financial rescue for our city. With that comes an understandable desire to exert longer control over the functions of the new DPS. However, I am concerned with the length of the transition period outlined in this legislation. As we have seen since the appointment of the first emergency financial manager under Gov. Granholm, state management has not been a panacea for DPS.

Further, we are heartened by the example set in Wayne County, where state assistance has allowed strong elected leadership to set the county back on the path to fiscal solvency.

Finally, the success of our efforts depends on strong buy-in from the community. We believe a quicker transition to a local school board would be a better way to accomplish this goal. We also agree with the Mayor, the Financial Review Commission has worked well as a partner with the city and believe the same would be true with a new DPS.

Where the Chamber diverges from this package of bills is on the establishment of a Detroit Education Commission. Again, in this instance, I won’t be prescriptive regarding the make-up of the commission. However, I do believe that we need to have a more rational system for opening and closing schools in our city.

This should not be taken as a slight to the charter community. As I have mentioned, our organization has been strongly pro-charter most recently in supporting the lifting of the charter cap. However, our disappointment, then as now, is that our accountability mechanisms are clumsy at best.

We must acknowledge that charters in the city of Detroit, as a whole, are not performing any better than DPS academically. Our city’s school system cannot be successful unless each public school, charter and traditional, is held to high standards and our openings and closings are based on rational decisions that take the entire landscape into account.

I believe that a Detroit Education Commission will ensure that the best schools in our city thrive and those that aren’t meeting standards will be the first to close… regardless of their governance model. I believe that parents in Detroit should have choices, I believe they should be good choices, and I believe they should not be limited to the neighborhoods that are often oversaturated with schools while others are woefully underserved.

Before I conclude, I should acknowledge that this package of bills contains many provisions which fall outside of the scope of the recommendations from the coalition and the Governor. Many of these provisions are items that the Chamber has been pushing for years on a statewide basis.

Each of these topics has merit and is worthy of continued conversation. Ideally, any changes that are made should be made on a statewide basis. Any changes that are specific to Detroit should be done cautiously with an eye towards balancing the potential benefit with unforeseen consequences for the students and the district.

Most importantly, these proposals should not serve as an excuse to prevent the truly critical needs of debt relief, local control and the Detroit Education Commission from being enacted.