Jack Martin: True Reformer?

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    Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Jack Martin is participating in the summer ritual of walking door-to-door trying to generate renewed public interest in the beleaguered district. His goal is to recruit and enroll 5,000 more students by the opening of school on September 3. What gives him an outside chance is the deployment of a new strategy: giving parents and students a greater say in the choice of schools.

    Every year at this time, DPS volunteers, teachers, parents and community partners conduct a door-to-door enrollment drive aimed at both new and former students who might have left the district for better opportunities. Indeed, flight from the city explains much of the precipitous drop-off in enrollment from the 1966 peak of 298,000. Detroit has lost more than half of its population in the interim. Only about 51,000 students attended DPS this past school year. And the projections for the upcoming school year are not encouraging.

    All out efforts to pump up the numbers are understandable. Fall enrollment is critical to determining how much state financial aid a district can receive. For each student it enrolls, DPS receives $7,190 from the state.

    Thousands of the best, brightest and wealthiest students opt for charter, suburban public schools, private and parochial schools. The shrinking district is an indication that Detroit residents lack confidence in the school system and its leadership. Declining enrollments also mean the closing of more underutilized, ineffective schools. Since 2000, by necessity, DPS has closed 200 schools.

    The Martin team is hoping to stem the exodus by convincing those on the verge of leaving to give DPS a fresh look and a second chance. But instead of the usual cash offerings, merchandise and other incentives to entice students to show up and be counted, the Martin enrollment campaign pitches local theme schools. Parents are being offered a varied and greater choice among schools their children can attend.

    It’s not clear how far the EM is willing to advance this concept. But it’s widely accepted that parental choice – like charter schools — is another option to improve children’s learning. It also fosters healthy competition among schools. After all, competition and the need for the schools to appeal to parents in order to stay in business is the foundation of lasting reform. And such reforms can raise the educational level of the school system as a whole.

    Equally important, choice empowers people rather than education bureaucrats. There is much scholarly research indicating that the most compelling factor in the learning process is parental involvement. Whether Martin fails or succeeds depends on the degree of public input and support he receives.

    If Martin’s initiative goes as far as empowering teachers and administrators to share decision-making in a school site, it could usher in even more innovation. All schools should be allowed to break from central bureaucratic controls that stifle effective organization, achievement and competition. Accompanying the transfer of this control is the responsibility for schools to be fully accountable for results.

    Martin, in breaking ranks with failed management practices of the past, appears to understand that the most desirable way to gain students and keep them in the classroom is to that offer them a sound curriculum that maintains their interests. Theme schools do that. Could this be the first step to bring sweeping improvements and accountability measures to DPS? It remains to be seen.

    But let’s face it. Detroit students have phenomenal unmet education needs. Previously, parents had little choice but to accept the flawed judgment of misguided EMs about what is best for their children.

    Jack Martin, it appears, is trying to move beyond past limitations, failures and excuses. His free-choice schools concept promises a greater voice and a greater sense of responsibility for everyone involved with education. And it’s as timely as it is critical.

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