Interview with Kristi Bowman on Detroit Schools

Written by: Alexander Swindle

Primary Source : Michigan Policy Wonk Blog, May 27, 2016

IPPSR Policy Fellow Alex Swindle interviewed IPPSR Forum speaker and Faculty Affiliate Kristi Bowman, Associate Dean of MSU School of Law and an expert on education finance and policy.


Alex Swindle: As we saw, the fiscal crisis of Detroit Public Schools is an emotionally charged issue. Amidst the discussion, what perspectives and arguments stood out to you most?

Kristi Bowman: I can certainly understand why there is so much emotion behind the discussion; it’s appropriate. What I found most encouraging was the high level of investment in this debate. We saw representation from government, nonprofits, and academia coming together to share their unique perspectives. I am glad to see that so many are passionate about this issue.

AS: DPS’s need for state assistance is clear. However, it can be a struggle to find a balance between state and local control. Can the emergency manager system be an effective approach?

KB: Theoretically, it can be an effective approach. It can be a very positive move for the state to step in but only to a certain extent. In Michigan, much of the struggle we see today is caused from state involvement escalating over time. Furthermore, the emergency manager law assumes the problem is at the local level while much of it stems structurally from the state level.


AS: Emergency managers are often criticized as being too dominant. Can the lines between financial and academic affairs be difficult for an emergency manager to separate?

KB: In the management of a school, it is inevitable that financial decisions will spill over into academics. Financial matters in a school directly correlate with the academic environment. In 1990 we saw PA 72 expand emergency manager power to include the financial management of public school districts, which had led to a great many lawsuits. I am critical of how broad power is under PA 436 but with the emergency manager system it is almost impossible to disentangle financial and academic affairs.

AS: As you noted in the forum, bankruptcy can be an expensive and slow process. Do you feel emergency management is a responsible solution in comparison?

KB: Yes, in regards to schools, even with the flaws we have seen. Bankruptcy judges are limited in their scope when compared to emergency managers. Bankruptcy is restructuring on a long-term basis but judges cannot make any structural changes. Emergency managers have greater power to fix local level structural issues. Ideally, it can be a better solution.

AS: DPS is only one of 12 education providers in Detroit. What kind of relationship should DPS have with charter schools? Do you feel they can peacefully coexist or is competition inevitable? Is it a sustainable system?

KB: While it was a good short-term solution at the time, the passage of Proposal A in 1994 has a different impact today. In Michigan, school funding is heavily concentrated at the state level. This is a relatively unique system. Until we have authorizers at the local level, it will be a challenge for charter schools to communicate with DPS.


AS: SB 710, while still under consideration, would split DPS to create a debt-free community school district. If passed, what legal challenges would you predict?

KB: I compared this to the “Old GM, New GM” concept in my presentation; this is an interesting way of borrowing bankruptcy law from corporations. It is certainly a strange concept nationally to have an entity funded by the public provide no service to the public. DPS would exist solely as a debt repayment mechanism. Frankly, I find the idea counterintuitive. I am interested to see how this develops.

AS: In general, where do you see the direction of public education in Detroit going? What do you believe needs to be the focus of the conversation?

KB: The focus must be providing the best education possible to the greatest number of students. Student-focused solutions must be given highest priority. The future of DPS is vital to the future of the city and state.

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Alexander Swindle
Alexander Swindle is an undergraduate political science and geography student graduating in May 2017. He has interned in the Legislature and currently works at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR). His areas of interest include urban and metropolitan policy.