Amid Scandal and a Potential Break with the EAA, DPS has a Lesson to Learn

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 31, 2016

More Mess in DPS: Principal Kickbacks

The federal government uncovered an alleged $1 million kickback scheme that involved 12 Detroit Public School (DPS) principals, a district administrator, and a vendor on Tuesday. For the past 13 years, businessman Norman Shy has reportedly been paying bribes to principals and skimming money off the top of exchanges involving school supplies. Shy apparently made a habit of submitting falsified invoices and delivering only a portion of what was ordered while keeping the remaining revenue for himself and the co-conspiring principals.

This is bad timing for scandal of this magnitude as DPS’s future is already in flux. Governor Rick Snyder has created a plan for the district’s future that has at least tentative support among experts. The proposal was just approved and aims to infuse the schools with an additional $50 million to see them through the end of the school year without the need for furlough days or district closures. While the scandal is a political nightmare, it should be an indication not that things have gotten even worse for the schools, but rather, that the district’s current direction is the right one.

Learning from the Mistakes of the EAA

Sarah Reckhow, professor of political science at Michigan State University, wrote an op-ed last week that outlined the lessons that can be learned from Detroit’s failed experiment with alternate governance structures and political arrangements. The district, which was overseen by an Emergency Manager, delegated control of 15 poorly performing schools to the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), comprised of a governor-appointed board. Eastern Michigan University had previously partnered with the EAA, but pulled out of the agreement unceremoniously last month. EMU’s decision to bow out of Detroit is yet another indication that the system that has been in place for five years has proven ineffective.

If the system seems confusing, that’s because it is. Not only is the governance structure of DPS complex, but there are also many other stakeholders involved with the district, creating a “too many cooks” situation. In her article, Reckhow observes that the district’s centralized control, combined with philanthropic funding, has created a lack of transparency in decision-making. The board members are not accountable to the residents of the city, but rather, serve on behalf of the governor. Likewise, non-profits such as the Broad Foundation and Teach For America are beholden to their boards and stakeholders rather than the public. These organizations love innovation, but when their experiments fail, they can move on to the next project in the next city.

 New Legislation: Reason to be Optimistic?

In the conclusion to her opinion piece, Dr. Reckhow suggests that it’s time that legislature listen to Detroiters. Prior to the inception of the EAA, a coalition of Detroit civic leaders created a plan to improve education in Detroit. Rather than allow this group to guide decision making in the district, the EAA created a political distraction from many of the troubles afflicting schools in Detroit.

The most recent corruption scandal has the potential to similarly derail the conversation. However, that the embezzlement was overlooked for so long should serve as another clear signal that too many parties with too little accountability have been in charge of DPS for too long.

 MSU Education Policy expert David Arsen finds that the plan now pending in the senate is a step in a productive, stable direction for the district. The legislation aims to return accountability to the people, regulate the choice market, and split the district in two to manage its debt. Dr. Arsen is optimistic about the transparency with which the bill was created and its goals for the future of DPS, writing “It’s in stark contrast to, for instance, the way the EAA was established, the way that the Emergency Manager Law was passed. This is really a step forward, and I have to congratulate both the policymakers and the interested parties who participated in the negotiations.”

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.