The Michigan House may vote Thursday on a $617 million state bailout and restructuring of Detroit's ailing school district under a proposed compromise agreement that was being circulated to majority Republicans for review.
The bills, which were still being drafted late Wednesday, would retire the state-managed Detroit Public Schools' enormous $467 million operating debt over time and provide $150 million to transition to a new district in July, according to a summary of the proposal obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press. The outline was distributed to lawmakers and education lobbyists, and an agenda sent to reporters showed the legislation on Thursday's schedule.
The House and Senate have passed different restructuring plans and are trying to resolve their differences before a summer adjournment. Emergency aid previously approved for the district will run out by June 30.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said he would stop short of saying there is a deal until the legislation is written, but said negotiators are "a lot closer" on how much money is needed than they were in recent weeks. The Senate had backed $200 million in spending to launch a new district, the House $33 million.
"All the parties are coming closer to an agreement on what the financial resources are in order to operate the schools effectively. There are still a lot of moving pieces on the table right now," he told the AP at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference.
Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, said he was talking with GOP House Speaker Kevin Cotter, but no final agreement had been reached on any one item. Cotter spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said "there's still some work to do on details."
Detroit's enrollment is a third of what it was a decade ago, and the district, which has been under continuous state control since 2009, is considered the worst of its size in the country. More than half of students living in the city attend a charter school, which has prompted criticism that they're being opened largely unchecked, to the detriment of the district.
Frequent sick-out protests by teachers over pay and poor building conditions have led to school closures, forcing tens of thousands of students to stay home.
The new proposal in the House would schedule a school board election for November. The Senate's call for a commission to make decisions about opening traditional and publicly funded charter schools in the city would be dropped, despite that idea's support from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others.
Instead, an advisory board would issue reports on where schools are needed most in Detroit.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said Wednesday he still supports the Detroit Education Commission but called it a "newer concept," while there is common ground on paying down the massive debt and returning control to a school board.
"If you go back on someone's list three or four years ago, I think the main focus was on how do you deal with the historic debt and how do you get an elected school board back in place," he told the AP at the policy meeting.
The education commission, as called for in the Senate plan, is opposed by school-choice advocates and House Republicans who say it would bolster traditional schools at the expense of charter schools.
Snyder, Duggan and the Senate back the commission, which was proposed more than a year ago and is billed as a way to better locate and promote higher-quality schools in a fragmented system with nearly 100 traditional schools and 65 charters mainly authorized by state universities.
Discussion about the panel — the biggest point of contention in legislative talks — dominated an opening debate at the three-day gathering on Mackinac Island.
"Whoever's doing the governance today, it's not working," said John Rakolta, chairman and CEO of the Walbridge construction company in Detroit and co-chairman of a coalition backing an overhaul of the district. He said academic proficiency is abysmal in both DPS schools and charters.
"The DEC is the best hope, and it is supported by a vast number of people — Democrats, Republicans, labor, management, suburban, city, black, white, every business organization except for the Michigan Chamber" of Commerce, Rakolta said. "We all realize you have a model going forward that's different."
But Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said the commission is unnecessary and warned against exposing the education system to "city politics."