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Detroit Education Reform: Few Details Emerge On Michigan College Promise

First Posted: 06/21/2011 6:25 pm Updated: 08/21/2011 5:12 am

When Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) presented sweeping reforms to Detroit's -- and, eventually, Michigan's -- schools on Monday, he accompanied the news of the drastic plan to create a new authority for the city's lowest-performing schools with a promise.

"We're going to launch a major initiative to raise resources from the business community," Snyder said, to pay for every one of Detroit's high school graduates to attend two years of college or vocational school.

That promise immediately received high praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Monday. If the plan succeeds, Duncan said, "you're going to see a massive influx of families back into the city."

"This will be great for children. This will be great for education. It will be great for the school system. But I also think it will be an amazing economic development tool."

Synder said the scholarship fund would be modeled after a similar program for residents of Kalamazoo, Mich. But few details on the plan -- its timeline, its funding, its parameters -- have been disclosed.

Philanthropic support of schools has been gaining ground as one way to shore up failing school districts that are losing government money. Last September, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a high-profile gift to Newark's schools during an appearance on "Oprah."

While school districts often embrace such cash infusions, some educators wonder about the strings attached.

"There has to be some monitoring of what they're doing because we want to support holistic reform, not just someone who can throw the carrot stick around and have the rabbit jump," said Marytza Gawlik, who until recently taught at Wayne State University, in Detroit.

"They're keeping it secret," Danielle Filipiak, an English teacher at Detroit's Western International High School, said of the funding for the proposed scholarship fund. "Many of these efforts, there are people across the country that are part of this effort. There's a lot of money coming together to reform education and privatize it. Detroit is becoming the testing ground."

Those involved in shaping education policy in Detroit say they don't know much about the plan.

"Everybody would support students in Detroit getting two years of college paid for," Anthony Adams, president of the Detroit School Board, told HufPost. "That's a great idea." But, he asked, "Where is that money going to come from? We don’t want to sell false hope or promises."

"I don't have a clue at this point of exactly how they plan to raise the money, which I assume has to be some kind of endowment," said Doug Ross, the head of University Prep Academy, a much-lauded charter school venture in Detroit.

Several phone calls and emails sent to Detroit Public Schools representatives on Monday and Tuesday seeking answers were not returned.

The most concrete formulation of the promise was spelled out in a press release circulated by DPS and Snyder's office:

Snyder and Roberts also announced they are working with foundations, businesses and philanthropic organizations on a plan modeled after the successful Kalamazoo Promise to guarantee that all students who graduate from a high school in Detroit will have the financial resources to attend, at a minimum, their choice of a two-year college or career training school in Michigan. The goal is to expand the program to include four-year colleges as quickly as possible.

With so few details available on the promise's execution, some Detroiters see it as yet another carrot presented alongside a reform measure that claims to fix dismal school performance.

Long-time Detroit teacher Steve Conn expressed his skepticism.

"When they unveil a new element of reform, they always trumpet out some promises," he said. "Right away, if you read the fine print, they're saying maybe they are working on maybe finding somebody to pay for all the students to go to some kind of school. It's so vague."

State Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) and several others said they expected the bulk of funding to come from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a philanthropic group that has inspired backlash for what some see as its heavy-handed involvement in school reform.

"Broad has been at the forefront of the financial district," Johnson said. "They're still involved on the front end and helping to lead this conversation and want to frontload money, so they'll be heavily involved."

A representative for Snyder confirmed the Broad Foundation's involvement in the scholarship program but would not specify its extent.

Several calls and email messages to the Broad Foundation were not returned. Representatives of the Gates Foundation, another big player in education reform, said Gates will not be part of the Michigan initiative.

Three major players in Detroit's education philanthropy scene, the Kresge, Skillman and Kellogg foundations, are also up in the air on involvement in the program.

Cynthia Shaw, Kresge's communications director, declined to discuss specifics.

"We're trying to figure out what our possible role might be," she said.

Dan Varner, who heads Kellogg's education programming and also sits on the Michigan State Board of Education, also said that his foundation's role is yet to be determined.

"We've not formalized any role," he told HuffPost. "We'll get a request for support of some kind, which we'd welcome and seriously consider."

Varner added that the lack of details about the program do not bother him, since Snyder's style is to reveal plans often before developing them fully.

"Governor Snyder's practice has been to throw provocative ideas into the public space and allow for discourse on them and then to take the best ideas that emerge and use those to tweak the plan before it gets implemented," he said.

Skillman Foundation President Carol Goss said her group will not directly pay for the scholarship fund, but will probably support ancillary programs.

"The main thing we can say is it's one of the best things that can happen for our children," Goss said.

"This whole idea of offering college as an incentive to get kids through school sounds good to some people, it sounds good in the public eye," Filipiak, the DPS teacher, said. "The fact of the matter is that our kids are not engaged in school."

But in addition to her questions about the support behind the initiative, Filipiak questioned its efficacy, even if fully funded.

"We're just glossing it over with a little band aid," she said. "You're putting children who perform in college. What about the rest of the children?"

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