For Detroit schools, belt tightening is not the answer

The Detroit News reported yesterday that the situation for Detroit public schools has gone from worse to really worse.  And a state lawmaker is despairing that no one really knows what to do about failing public schools.  But the truth is Michigan lawmakers do know what to do about failing public schools; they simply lack the will to do it.   

Paul Scott, a Republican state representative from Grand Blanc, Michigan, who chairs the joint House and Senate Education Committee, commented:

"We need a long-term solution for public schools for Detroit and the state," he said. "We just don't have the solution right now."

Short term, state school officials are ordering Detroit public schools to adopt a financial restructuring plan that slashes budgets and closes schools.  Given that Detroit public schools are hemorrhaging an estimated 8,000 students annually, and have lost some 83,000 students over the last decade, cutting budgets and closing or consolidating schools make sense.

But the cost-savings don't fix the real problem in Detroit public schools.  The financial belt-tightening does slow the flow of red ink.  But it does nothing to address the main problem: public schools failing to educate kids - and doing so at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. 

For Detroit, particularly, the solution is radical (as in fundamental, for squeamish pols).  Rep. Scott take note.  It's high time to implement a school choice program throughout Detroit.  That's right.  It's time to end the government monopoly on education.  It's time to give parents and kids the power to choose their schools, thereby creating a marketplace in primary and secondary education. 

Note, Representative, that no one is suggesting ending public education.  Let good public schools survive and thrive in competition with schools public and private.  But end most state subsidies to public schools (meal programs for poorer areas are worthy).  

School choice would go a long way to breaking the stranglehold that teachers' unions and bureaucrats have on public education.  Public schools that wanted to succeed would need to cull out all those freeloading teachers whose mission it is to collect salaries and benefits and wait for cushy retirement packages. 

Inner-city Catholic schools, for example, typically provide better educations - and character-building - for much less money than their public school counterparts.  And that's not because Catholic schools are "skimming the cream" in students from public schools.  It's because Catholic schools have teachers who are dedicated to teaching and parents who struggle to find the money to give their kids a chance.  Most inner-city Catholic schools are lean-mean operations. 

What has happened to Detroit public schools is nothing less than a moral crime.  Detroit kids are, in fact, victims of political establishments in their city and Lansing that are more interested in courting and placating powerful interests - teachers' unions - than in ensuring that kids get the educations they deserve. 

You know what to do, Rep. Scott, and so do your colleagues - and so does Governor Snyder.  But do any of you have the will to do it?