Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan unveiled a proposal on Thursday to overhaul the failing Detroit public school system by creating two districts — one to manage paying off billions of dollars in debt, the other to oversee the day-to-day operations of the schools.
The plan from Mr. Snyder, a Republican, was met with opposition even before it was officially announced: Hundreds of Detroit teachers called in sick on Thursday to attend a protest at the State Capitol in Lansing. Their absence shut 18 public schools for the day. Teachers argued that Mr. Snyder’s plan would not improve outcomes for Detroit children and that it was just a step toward turning the district into an all-charter district.
Mr. Snyder rebuffed those assertions, arguing that his plan would give Detroit Public Schools — which have been under the control of an emergency manager for most of the past 15 years — financial stability, would give parents better choices, and would hold schools accountable.
“I didn’t want to continue to see emergency managers in Detroit Public Schools continuing,” Mr. Snyder said during a briefing with reporters in Detroit on Thursday morning. “We’ve had enough. Let’s change the questions. Instead of simply looking at Detroit Public Schools, let’s look at education in Detroit because that’s one of the major issues that we have. If you look at the performance, we’re not seeing great performance either from D.P.S. or charter schools.”
The Detroit system has $483 million in operating debt and an additional $1.54 billion in bond debt. The current district, with the emergency manager and current school board, will take on the operating debt and make sure it is paid off through a tax levy that collects about $72 million a year. Meanwhile, under the plan, a new district called the City of Detroit Education District would be created and would rely on additional funding from the state of up to $72 million a year to operate. The bond debt would go to the new district, to be paid down by a tax that is currently being collected.
The new district would be overseen by a seven-member board that initially would be appointed by the governor and Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, before a fully elected board is phased in by 2021. The plan also would create a financial review board that would oversee how the new and old districts manage their money, and a five-member commission that would appoint a manager to make sure that schools meet legislatively mandated academic standards. That manager would oversee universal services like security and performance review, and would create timelines for improving or closing underperforming schools.
The manager also would oversee a universal enrollment system.
“It’s just layer after layer of bureaucracy and playing funny with the money,” said Steve Conn, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “We can’t have that.”
Mr. Snyder’s plan should have focused on issues like reducing class sizes and invigorating class curriculum with things like art and music, Mr. Conn said. Instead, he said, the governor was trying to create a city in which all of the schools would become charters, similar to what has happened in two other Michigan cities, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, in addressing their financial problems.
By any metric, Detroit schools are failing. Only 6 percent of high school students are proficient in math, 4 percent in science and about 33 percent in reading, according to the governor’s office. Charter schools in the city generally perform poorer than traditional public schools. The state recently took over the city’s worst schools, but that has yet to show positive results.
Mr. Snyder’s plan is subject to approval by the State Legislature. He said he hoped it would be passed by the fall and that the changes could start to be put in place next year.
State Senator Coleman Young II, a Democrat representing Detroit, said he feared that Detroit Public Schools would go broke because lawmakers would not fund them with the additional money necessary to make the plan work.
“I personally think it is putting our kids’ future at risk,” he said. “I think it’s an educational moral hazard.”
But John Rakolta Jr., a co-chairman of a coalition of civic leaders that released recommendations for overhauling the city’s education system about a month ago, said he was heartened by Mr. Snyder’s recommendations. The governor largely adopted the measures recommended by the coalition.
“I’m very, very encouraged,” Mr. Rakolta said. “I think we made an enormous amount of progress.”