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Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Public Schools testimony

This week the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Brad Williams, vice president of the government relations and Greg Handel, vice president for talent and education, appeared before the Senate Committee on Government Operations at a hearing on the two education reform bills on the Detroit Public Schools. They testified to the importance of an education system in the city to the state’s overall economic future.

Read the testimony below:

Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is Brad Williams, I am the Vice President of the Government Relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber. I have with me today my colleague Greg Handel, our Vice President for Talent and Education.

I want to start by thanking Sen. Hansen for his remarkable leadership on this issue. Also Sen. Meekhof for focusing the Senate on this critical issue during a time with no shortage of critical issues.

In December, the Chamber presented our membership with a new region-wide strategy called Forward Detroit. Forward Detroit is an effort build on our region’s momentum during this unique moment in time and build a growing economy that is sustainable and leads the nation. Forward Detroit utilizes numerous different efforts in our organization and our region to impact measurable outcomes under five different 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% 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 we 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. Our President and CEO, Sandy Baruah, as well as a number of our member companies participated in the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. We broadly support their recommendations. The Chamber, is focusing our advocacy on three main pillars that we believe the Legislature should address.

First, the Chamber supports a return to local control for the Detroit Public Schools. We aren’t casting 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. We are not going to be prescriptive on this question, understanding that there are a variety of stakeholders with an interest in how and when this transition occurs, but we are confident that the Governor, Mayor, Legislature and local leaders all see this as an important step. We share the Mayor’s opinion that the Financial Review Commission has worked well in city government and believe that same will be true in its interaction with Detroit Public Schools.

Second, 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. Certainly, as in any situation, management of resources plays a role here, and we are confident the Financial Review Commission will help to ensure that going forward, management decisions have the appropriate amount of scrutiny to prevent future shortfalls. However, no schools with the challenges that DPS faces can be successful when $1100 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.

Finally, we continue to support the creation of a Detroit Education Commission. Again, in this instance, we won’t be prescriptive regarding the make-up of the commission but 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. My colleague Greg, serves on the MAPSA board and is a past chair, we have at least four members of our staff who are currently serving on charter boards, and we undertook and effort to recruit and train our members to serve on the boards of charter schools. We recognize that Charter’s in the city of Detroit as a whole are not performing any better than DPS academically, we are long-time supporters of parental choice, 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 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. We believe that parents in Detroit should have choices, we believe they should be good choices, and we believe they should not be limited to the neighborhoods that are often oversaturated with schools while others are woefully underserved.

In conclusion, I want to thank you again for the opportunity to testify. Greg and I would be happy to take any questions you have.