By Thomas C. Pedroni, Ph.D. and Karen D. Twomey, M.Ed.

Article originally posted at

April 2, 2015

A central goal of the Detroit Data and Democracy Project is to provide timely, accessible, and informed insight on major educational issues affecting our metropolitan region and state. On March 30, 2015, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren delivered its much-anticipated recommendations for Detroit schools to Governor Snyder. Given the attention that the Coalition’s recommendations have received in the regional and national press and from policy makers, we felt the recommendations contained in its 28-page report merited a carefully considered review.

In this initial response, we note areas of strength in the Coalition’s report as well as a number of important concerns. Our analysis of the recommendations it contains will be divided into four focal areas: (1) governance and accountability, (2) financial sustainability, (3) academics, and (4) equity. This initial response focuses on the first—governance and accountability.

Governance & Accountability

Effective governance and accountability mechanisms are the foundation of any sustained improvement in academics, fiscal health, and assurances of equity. We applaud the Coalition’s recognition that top-down systems of governance over Detroit schools in recent decades (1999-2006 and 2009-2015) have created and exacerbated fiscal woes while failing to deliver meaningful academic improvement. We are also pleased with the Coalition’s calls, backed by research evidence, for the end of emergency management by the state and the restoration of democratic accountability through the empowerment of the elected Detroit Board of Education.

However, our close review of some of the Coalition’s other recommendations leaves us with uncertainty as to the extent to which the Detroit Board can actually govern and, by extension, be held accountable by the electorate. Most of the core powers reserved for an elected board in other public school districts across the state are subsumed, in the Coalition proposal, by a new mayorally appointed Detroit Education Commission (DEC). In almost all Michigan public school districts, an elected board– and not an appointed education commission– exercises its authority on behalf of the electorate in five main areas: (1) the adoption and implementation of an annual budget; (2) the hiring and supervision of a superintendent; (3) the negotiation and management of collective bargaining agreements; (4) the establishment through consultation with the community of a vision and goals for the district; and (5) the implementation of goals through effective policy.

While calling for a return to democratic accountability, the Coalition’s recommendations remove key tools related to effective budgeting and planning from the elected board’s tool kit. Particularly in Detroit’s current environment of declining enrollment and shifting demographics, the power to close programs and open new ones to effectively meet the needs of Detroit’s changing population is an essential component of righting the district’s fiscal ship. There are many reasons why an elected board would want to consider closing a school (dwindling enrollment, poor academic performance, the condition of the school building, and so on) or open a new one (create new specialty schools to expand parental choice and draw in more families, respond to innovations in educational delivery and classroom best practices, and so on).

The Coalition calls for this power to be vested in a new bureaucratic layer, the Detroit Education Commission (DEC). The Coalition furthermore proposes that the DEC, in partnership with new Regional Councils, be empowered to decide when individual schools merit increased autonomy over their curriculum and programming. We question whether the DEC will have the necessary capacity and expertise to decide when a school merits greater autonomy or closure. If it is created as a lean body of appointed volunteers, as the Coalition proposal envisions, then it is unlikely to possess the market research capacity or academic expertise to know when to close buildings or grant individual schools greater curricular autonomy. The DEC could hire the professional personnel to build its capacity to make informed decisions, but the considerable cost associated with the creation of such a professional bureaucracy would be borne in part by the further usurping of scarce per-pupil dollars in an already deeply financially struggling district. A new level of professional bureaucracy located in the DEC would also replicate the expertise that the Detroit community already finances within the DPS administration and within Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency (Wayne RESA). Most importantly, the DEC would remove significant building level authority from the Detroit Board, diminishing the ability of Detroit’s electorate to hold elected Detroit Board members accountable.

The elected Board’s capacity to control and be held accountable for its budgeting and programming is furthermore compromised by the proposed usurpation by the DEC of the managerial power of the elected board to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the DPS work force. Class size targets and other aspects of classroom life that directly impact students and the conditions within which they learn are commonly negotiated in collective bargaining agreements, meaning that the delegation of this power to the DEC will further impair the Board’s ability to establish a vision and set its own course.

With the Coalition’s recommendation that the DEC assume significant control over budgeting, collective bargaining, and the curricular decisions normally made by an elected board in consultation with its chosen superintendent, we conclude that the Coalition report promises the restoration of the elected board’s powers and accountability while leaving it with little of the substantive authority which Detroit’s electorate rightly expects. Despite the Coalition’s familiarity with the significant body of research evidence supporting elected board efficacy, and the prevalence of democratic accountability in all successful public school districts across the state of Michigan, the Coalition’s recommendations restore almost none of the elected board’s powers. Sadly, although the Coalition report concludes that top-down non-democratic educational decision making has damaged Detroit schools, it fails to deliver on the promise to restore democratic accountability.