The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "What's the Hope for Urban Education" by The Detroit News, October 25, 2000.

Original Title:
Hope for Urban Education
by Barry McGhan

On a hazy evening in late August, in a law firm overlooking Hart Plaza and the Detroit River, I met some of the last remnants of hope for urban education--David Olmsted and Larry Patrick. They, along with Frank Hayden and Joe Blanding, were elected to the Detroit School Board in 1988 as the HOPE reform slate. HOPE gained full control of the board in 1990, only to lose their majority in the election of 1992. I wanted to find out what they learned from their experiences.

Patrick and Olmstead, both native Detroiters and Harvard-educated lawyers, one black, one white, one Republican, one Democrat, hold a deep and abiding interest in school improvement. During their four years together on the board, HOPE moved the district from a $210 million deficit in 1989 to a $55 million surplus in 1992. They recruited former state superintendent John Porter to be Interim Superintendent while they sought a replacement for the departed Arthur Jefferson.

Eventually, under Patrick's presidency, they brought in Deborah McGriff, now a vice president with the Edison Schools corporation. HOPE promoted the idea that public school boards could contract with empowered, largely independent schools for the same services that the district itself was providing. McGriff's mission was to find ways to empower individual schools and "refunction" central administration to support them. At the peak of HOPE's reform efforts, 25 schools had accepted the responsibility of becoming site-managed.

Then it all fell apart.

The forces of tradition and supporters of the status quo stepped up their resistance to change. Empowered schools were called elitist. Union officials withdrew their support for the empowerment plan. A four-week strike in 1992 soured some citizens on the district's direction, and in the board election that year, several HOPE candidates lost by narrow margins. Soon after, superintendent McGriff, lacking support of the board, left. The district returned to normal--more deficits, paralyzing bureaucracy, and continued low achievement.

Patrick and Olmstead moved on. Having failed in their efforts to work within the existing system of public education--to give choice to Detroit's parents and power and authority to its "street-level" educators--they took their message to the governor's office in early 1993. The following year the state passed its first charter school law.

Today, they continue to espouse the values expressed in their 1988 campaign slogan: empowerment, diversity, and choice. They attend education conferences and appear on panels to discuss education reform issues. They take satisfaction from seeing Michigan become one of the nations' leading charter school states. They're glad that charters are gaining national political support among both Republicans and Democrats. They are gratified to know that an important mainstream organization--the Education Commission of the States--now advocates that school districts pursue school improvement through empowerment. ECS recommends that districts decentralize their operations and turn the lion's share of money and authority over to individual schools to manage their own operations.

As Patrick and Olmstead see it, HOPE may have lost an election, but Detroit's families, teachers, and building administrators lost an opportunity to use choice and empowerment to improve their schools. Having taken their best shot at handing over power to the most disenfranchised segments of the system, they continue to hope for the best for Detroit's public schools.

They worry that educators are ignoring the changing political and social realities of public education--like the American auto industry ignored changes in global markets 25 years ago. They would like to see educators and citizens find a forum to engage in a less politicized debate over education's problems and proposed solutions than has occurred so far. For Olmstead, the bottom line in school improvement is "Send the money to the schools, not the district bureaucracy." For Patrick, the key is increased choice for parents, particularly those with low family incomes.

At its root, HOPE offered a powerful populist message of freedom to the most disenfranchised levels of urban school districts--parents and teachers. For poor parents, it was the freedom to choose where to send their children, a freedom that parents of means already have. For teachers, it was the freedom to exercise their best professional judgement about how to use educational resources, prerogatives traditionally reserved to others. These freedoms--coupled with the freedom of the public to know what is going on in schools--can transform public education from the whipping boy it has been, into the jewel of 21st Century urban American communities.

Yet, these changes are not simple, and can't happen everywhere at once. They need to be phased in so that those not interested can opt out, while others seize the new opportunities created by choice and empowerment.

One more thing. Larry Patrick is a candidate for the state board of education this fall. He needs your support.

Home Philosophy Projects Publications Purpose/History Comments Other Sites