Michigan gubernatorial candidates Schuette, Whitmer push for bus fixes to help Detroit schools

Michigan’s candidates for governor are pledging to improve transportation to address rampant school transfers that contribute to low test scores in Detroit.

One day after an investigation by Bridge Magazine and Chalkbeat found 1 in 3 Detroit elementary students switched schools every year, candidates Bill Schuette and Gretchen Whitmer said their education plans could help.

During the 2015-16 school year, nearly 60 percent of Detroit kids — 50,000 students — were enrolled in two or more schools, with some possibly changing schools, then changing back, only to see test scores fall. It’s a situation compounded by a plethora of charter schools and competition from suburbs, but also family instability, poverty and frustration with the city’s traditional schools.

Asked about solutions, both Schuette, a Republican, and Whitmer, a Democrat, pointed to more money for busing.

Transportation is viewed by educators as essential to addressing student mobility, since Wayne State University research has found that just 40 percent of students who switched schools in Detroit moved to a different ZIP code.

Better busing would mean that, if their parents moved, students wouldn’t have to switch schools.

Two years ago, school advocates proposed a unified transportation system in Detroit to serve charter and public schools but it was shot down. Earlier this year, a pilot program backed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan began offering bus service to 10 traditional and charter schools in northwest Detroit.

Schuette, who is now attorney general, has been a proponent of schools of choice and charters throughout his decades-long political career.

He reiterated that support on Wednesday, when asked by Bridge and Chalkbeat how he’d address frequent school mobility.

“The ability to shop around, the ability to choose, the ability to go to a different school, forces others to improve. I think that’s an important ingredient,” Schuette said.

“Parents are in charge. You have to have that freedom to go to a different school.”

Schuette’s campaign said his plan to implement a rating system of schools from A to F would help parents make better choices.  His plan would award grants to schools that improve.

Schuette said wants to see a scholarship fund for families that need transportation to school.

He didn’t identify specifics, such as the source or amount of the grants, but he has pledged to form partnerships with philanthropies for such programs.

“We must also help families with the greatest financial needs cover the cost of getting their children to the school of their choice,” he said.

Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader, pointed to legislation she introduced in 2013 to allow schools to use a special type of dedicated tax millage —  known as sinking funds — to purchase and maintain buses.

It failed but Whitmer said she’d use her clout if elected governor to push for assistance.

“As governor, I’ll work to make sure every student can get to school safely, no matter where they are. This will help drive up test scores and help our kids get ahead,” Whitmer wrote in an email to Bridge and Chalkbeat.

Long-term, Whitmer also proposed reforms to the state’s formula for funding schools.

Now, schools get state funding based on a 1994 law called Proposal A that is based how much districts spent on students when the law was created.

Schools in different areas get different amounts of per-pupil funding, with schools in more affluent areas receiving more state funding than some schools in poor areas.

Whitmer said schools should get more money if they educate children with more needs.

“Providing adequate funding for schools — finally — will mean both kids and teachers have the resources required to improve academic outcomes in every school, but especially those with high percentages of at-risk and other factors that require more intensive educational services,” Whitmer said.

Any changes in that funding formula likely would require a statewide referendum. Proposals over the years to change Proposal A have been dead on arrival in Lansing.

This story is part of a series, Moving Costs: How students changing schools hurt Detroit classrooms, a joint project from Bridge Magazine and Chalkbeat. Chastity Pratt Dawsey is a Bridge reporter. Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat.