Brooke Harris, a teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School, is confused.
The English and journalism teacher faces class sizes of 45, and her colleagues have to teach as many as 60 students at a time. Special education teachers at the school, she says, have 10 to 12 students above the legal limit. But she doesn’t know who she really reports to, or who is running things.
“I have no idea who’s in charge of our public schools, and I don’t know if anyone really has any idea,” Harris said. “Both the school board and the emergency manager think they’re in charge.”
Others in Detroit’s schools have been asking the same question — who is in charge? — since Election Day, when Michigan voters repealed Public Act 4, a law that allowed the state to appoint its own managers to run school districts and municipalities, circumventing elected mayors and school boards. The repeal has ignited a lengthy and complex custody battle over the city’s public schools, a fight that grinds on as kids prepare for finals.
It’s also become a litmus test nationally for school reformers and analysts concerned with proving that their national agenda — non-unionized charter schools, standardized testing, and computer-based learning — can turn around school districts as impoverished as Detroit.
“Who’s in charge of our schools?” asked Steve Conn, a teacher who is trying to take over the local teachers’ union. “It’s up for grabs.”
Detroit Public Schools have been under the control of an emergency manager for three years already, due to a law that allowed the state to take over any municipality or school district facing financial emergencies. In 2011, the law was strengthened to give these managers more power and the ability to break union contracts, override elected officials and fire municipal workers. Under the law, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) put former General Motors executive Roy Roberts in charge of Detroit’s schools in 2011.
But following the law’s repeal this November, the school board flexed its muscles by voting to push aside the Education Achievement Authority, a privately managed school district that took over 15 low-performing Detroit public schools this year. Meanwhile, the state has pushed back against the school board, arguing that it still has authority to run the schools.
Some observers say all of this chaos can derail the EAA and the city’s other reform efforts. Detroit has used tools in line with the national education reform movement — such as charter schools, Teach for America, technology and school budgeting autonomy — to try to move the needle on school performance, attributing its system’s myriad problems to debt, bureaucracy and the limitation collective bargaining places on attracting the best and brightest teachers.
When it was announced, the EAA had the support of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who used the endorsement to highlight its importance beyond Michigan’s borders. If done right, Duncan said, the EAA had the “potential to be a model not just for the city, not just for the state, but for the entire country.”
Duncan had previously called Detroit “ground zero” for education reform, underscoring the subtext of any major education move in the Motor City: schools here are so impoverished and underperforming that any reform that can fix schools in Detroit will likely be seen as the answer to fixing schools anywhere.
With counsel from private philanthropic groups, Gov. Snyder created the EAA in 2011, and it began running public schools in Detroit this year — with plans to eventually take over 5 percent of the state’s lowest-performing schools. Unlike most public schools, the EAA schools don’t have union representation — teachers were fired and had to reapply for their jobs — and kids learn from both teachers and computers. The EAA itself, private entities or charter groups can all operate individual schools. The EAA is an experiment in what school districts across the country call “portfolio models”: the idea is to hand over control of a city’s lowest-performing schools to an outside, autonomous entity and concentrate resources on making them better, unencumbered by bureaucracy.
Now the emergency manager, the special district and the school board are engaged in a court standoff that some say, as Greg Richmond, head of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, puts it, “only lawyers can win.” The latest lawsuit seeks to remove Roberts from power as the current DPS chief. A judge has postponed state attorney general Bill Schuette’s suit to remove several Detroit school board members.
When Richmond came to Detroit last year to help build the EAA, he said he became optimistic about the collaboration he saw. “This latest turn of events with the vote undoing the emergency powers, it just seemed to unravel overnight,” he said.
As for who is actually in charge, the school district asserts that Roberts maintains power. DPS spokesperson Steven Wasko pointed to an August Court of Appeals decision that said that a repeal of Public Act 4 would simply mean a rollback to 1990, when Public Act 72, an earlier but less forceful iteration of the emergency manager law, was intact. “Roberts has been real clear based on strong legal advice [that]… from the morning after the election we return to PA 72 and he serves as the emergency financial manager,” Wasko said.
Meanwhile, the school board plows ahead as if it’s in charge, but its members say they still feel disenfranchised. Even under PA 72, the school board is supposed to control academics.
“The academics are controlled by the school board, completely,” said school board member Tawanna Simpson. “Roberts shouldn’t be in charge.”
With so much in flux, it’s hard to say what, exactly, the repercussions will be for students.
“It’s going to be a massive distraction,” Richmond said. “You’re unlikely to see academic improvement while the adults are in court.”