30,000 Voters Express Desire For Change At DPS

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Advocates for Detroit Public Schools accountability presented petitions containing more than 30,000 signatures to Detroit City Council on Tuesday, urging it to schedule a November referendum on the future governance of Detroit Public Schools.

The 30,704 signatures, 90% of which were verified, were collected by Change for Better Schools, a broad coalition of parents, community and civic leaders frustrated by years of political infighting and other unprofessional behavior by the Detroit Board of Education and its failure to deliver a quality education for Detroit students. The group wants the Council to put the question of mayoral accountability for DPS before voters on the November ballot.

“Our goal is to create a stable form of governance for DPS that would create an environment to provide Detroit students the quality education they need to succeed in today’s world,” said committee co-chair Rev. Larry Simmons, pastor, Baber Memorial AME Church. “Clearly the current board has failed miserably.  Something has to change.  To continue down the same path and do nothing for our children would be unconscionable.”

Co-chairs of change for Better Schools are Simmons, N. Charles Anderson, president, Detroit Urban League; Delores Bennett, founder and director, North End Youth Improvement Council; Eva Garza Dewaelsche; Tina Nelson, parent activist; Alice Thompson, CEO, Black Family Development; and David Baker Lewis, chairman, Lewis & Munday as treasurer.

The Detroit Public Schools have suffered from a chronically high dropout rate, now estimated at near 30 percent, while students fall far below national standards in academic performance.  Detroit students had the worst scores of any school district in the nation in history on both the math and reading sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress during the past school year.

A major cause of DPS problems has been constant turmoil on the school board and in the district’s governance.  Since the current board was reconstituted in 2006, the district has had four superintendents.

“It is impossible to create a nurturing educational environment when there is constant turmoil in the district’s leadership,” said Simmons.  “No district can succeed with such chaos.  Yet, if we do nothing, the old failed board will be back in charge next March 1.  Changing to a system where the mayor is directly accountable for education will mean voters have one elected official they can hold responsible, not a faceless board.”

The petition initiative would urge the Michigan Legislature to replace the current school board structure with a system where the mayor would be accountable for DPS, including the appointment of a superintendent and an advisory board comprised of parents, teachers, civic leaders and clergy.

Ultimately, the Michigan Legislature will decide the future governance of DPS since all public schools in Michigan are under its jurisdiction. Any changes in governance must be decided by the Legislature.

The petitioners asked Council to put the issue on the ballot since state law does not contain a mechanism to petition a referendum onto the ballot.

“In addition to the failing test scores, the schools are failing on a basic level,” said parent activist Tina Nelson.  “They don’t have the textbooks in classrooms on time, or basic supplies like soap and toilet paper. I believe it will take a lot of community leaders and involved parents to turn our schools around. But we need help! There needs to be someone who is responsible, and the mayor is that person. That’s the one election everyone pays attention to.”

“The referendum will send a strong message to Lansing that Detroiters are fed up with the board’s record of failure and want change,” said Simmons.  “We need change now. We are letting our community, our city and our state know that the status quo is not acceptable. We must act now.”

Organizers have taken their cues from other cities, such as Boston and New York, that have implemented mayoral oversight and are seeing improvement.

Boston is the longest running example of mayoral-led public schools, dating back to 1991. Data collected over a five-year period, from 2002 to 2007, from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System(MCAS) show that 10th grade student math scores increased by 30% and verbal skills saw a 29% increase. In addition, Boston won the 2006 Broad Prize in recognition of their success.

New York also switched to mayoral oversight in 2002. During a five-year period, from 2003 to 2008, the graduation rate increased 18%; the total number of students rated as proficient or advanced in math increased 32%; the total number of students rated as proficient or advanced in verbal skills increased 17%. New York also received the Broad Prize in 2007. (The Skillman Foundation-Detroit Citywide Educational Turnaround, Sept. 25, 2009)

To ensure the credibility of the signatures, all petition circulators took an oath pledging their honesty and transparent representation of the petition. Group organizers had 90% of the signed petitions validated.

The petition drive started as an outgrowth of the Excellent Schools city-wide education improvement plan, sponsored by a coalition of parents, education advocates, and civic leaders. The Excellent Schools initiative aims to set higher academic standards for all Detroit students and increase graduation rates to 90%.

The exact language of the proposed ballot initiative is, “Accountability to Improve Public Schools.”

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