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(Photo by Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

(Photo by Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

After losing fight for Detroit school oversight, advocate says her side lost on politics, won on policy

A leading advocate for improving Detroit’s schools says she’s down but not defeated after lawmakers last week approved a Detroit Public Schools rescue package that lacked hoped-for reforms.

“They beat us at politics, not on the policy debate,” said Tonya Allen, who heads the Skillman Foundation and is a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

The Coalition, along with key allies like Mayor Duggan, spent months fervently lobbying lawmakers to approve reforms they said would promote school quality in the city.

Notably, the group wanted a Detroit Education Commission to control the number of charter schools in Detroit and help steer charter schools to neighborhoods that need them instead of allowing them to congregate in neighborhoods already saturated with schools.

That effort met with strong resistance from charter school lobbyists who successfully got it removed from the final $617 million rescue package. Most of the package passed by razor-thin margins without support from Democrats or Detroiters.

“It didn’t provide us with all of the tools that we feel like we needed,” Allen said.

But she still thinks her side came out on top.

“We’re winning,” she said. “The policy debate that came through the legislative process puts a spotlight on low performing schools … We now have the bully pulpit to try and encourage quality to happen.”

For now, she said, the Coalition will focus on changes they can make to schools that don’t involve the legislature.

That includes addressing chronic student absences and improving teacher training, among other priorities, she said.

“The biggest work and the hardest work is still before us and that is changing what happens in classrooms in Detroit.”