| Prasanna Swaminathan

Michigan lawmakers narrowly pass partisan Detroit schools rescue package

Lawmakers in Michigan narrowly passed a plan late Wednesday aimed at heading off a potential meltdown in Detroit’s crumbling school system.

The bill cleared the state Senate without support from Detroit representatives, or indeed any Democrat at the State Capitol.

Republican leaders managed to muster the 19 votes needed to pass the $617-million rescue plan, which is largely the same as one that passed the House last week. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the bill into law.

“This work represents a fresh start with more money in the classrooms for Detroit’s students, career stability for Detroit’s teachers, and fiscal accountability for all Michigan taxpayers,” Snyder said in a statement early Thursday. “This is a new day for education in Michigan’s comeback city."

Detroit schools are in crisis. Lawmakers, who have been working on different plans for five months, were up against an end-of-session deadline. Without a funding package, many observers expressed fears that schools would simply cease to operate.

Democrats are furious. There were shouts of “shame, shame” as the House voted just before midnight Wednesday to reconcile its bill to include the minor changes added by the Senate.

Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) said the plan catered to special interests like charter schools. "This plan is a farce. It's not about helping the children of Detroit, it's about money," Knezek said.

Crucially, the bill does not include a Detroit Education Commission, which was in an earlier bipartisan plan passed by the Senate in March. The mayor-appointed commission would have control over the opening and siting of schools in the city, both public and charter.

Supporters of the commission claim the continued setting up of charter schools without any local control will further undermine public schools, and siphon money from them.

Further, the school system is to be split into two districts, and the House plan earmarked $50 million less to effect the transition.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) was instrumental in persuading his Republican colleagues to support the bulk of the House bill. It took many hours of back and forth.

“This package we have in front of us represents a realistic compromise with a path to the future," Meekhof said.

Earlier he told the Detroit Free Press, “Getting consensus around any of these difficult ideas is always tough. (The House bill) didn’t come over with bipartisan support and we hoped it would. But it doesn’t look like that’s where we’re going."

Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart), who helped pass the Senate bill, voted against the House plan. Hansen, one of the architects of the original Senate package that passed in March, said after Wednesday’s vote, "I'm a proud Republican from West Michigan, and I represent the people of the 34th Senate District. But I also stand with the children and parents of Detroit.”

Leanne Chang, visiting professor at Grand Valley State University, who is writing a book on Detroit’s school system, said the opposition to a commission allows charter advocates to maintain control of charter schools.

“Rather than risk the “city politics” of a Detroit Education Commission, the House’s rescue plan is conceding the Democrat’s call for more accountability and regulation of charters but is putting that responsibility at the state level,” said Chang.

The proposed legislation includes a state School Reform Office, which will have some oversight over charter schools. But, wrote Chang in an email, at state level charter advocates can maintain their control over the charter enterprise.

Debate over the rescue has ignited real passions. Detroit Free Press editorial page editor, Stephen Henderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, called for the drowning of the legislators who passed the House bill, which he described as “garbage" in an op-ed piece Saturday.