The public schools in Detroit, Michigan—a school district that serves over 45,000 students—may run out of money in April. The mess is so complicated that it is hard to know even how to describe it. How to address it would require strong leadership that appears to be lacking in Michigan these days.
The state is a one-party, all Republican state. Its governor and legislature are unified in their commitment to lowering taxes through austerity budgeting. In education they have also proven to be pro-privatization at least in the biggest and poorest cities.
One thing is certain. The kind of thing that is happening in Detroit is unlikely to affect your children personally unless you live in one of the 10 most distressed large U.S. cities profiled in the NY Times last week—Cleveland; Detroit; Newark; Toledo; San Bernardino, Calif; Stockton, Calif.; Milwaukee; Buffalo; Memphis; and Cincinnati or a similar smaller city like Camden or Gary or Youngstown or Hartford or Flint. What is alarming is that Detroit’s public school crisis has not created any kind of urgent public sense that it must be remedied immediately.
The situation in Detroit’s schools has been a long time in the making. A lot of deplorable choices have been made by politicians over the years. Here are some of the major problems.
First, the school district has a staggering $3.5 billion long-term deficit.
Second, fifteen of Detroit’s schools were, several years ago, turned into a state Education Achievement Authority that has never encompassed more than this small group of the city’s schools. Earlier this month, Eastern Michigan University’s Board of Regents voted to pull out of the EAA coalition, which will effectively eliminate this experiment that everybody agrees has failed to serve its students, but according to state law, phasing out the EAA will take 18 months. The EAA’s current budget for 2015-1016 (all state dollars) is over $84 million that could be, one assumes, invested in the city’s schools.
Third, Michigan has, in Detroit, been committed to private management of schools through a rapidly expanded charter sector that has sucked children and money away from the city’s traditional public schools. In June of 2014, a Detroit Free Press expose described the underwriters of a powerful pro-charter lobby in Lansing, investors like pro-charter, pro-voucher Dick and Betsy DeVos; Jim and John Walton, and J.C. Huizenga, founder of the for-profit National Heritage Academies. The legislature has never created oversight of charter school authorizers to require them to shut down schools that perform poorly. Seventy-nine percent of Michigan’s charter schools are managed for-profit, with nearly a third of the state’s charter schools located in Detroit. Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit? Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer. It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers. It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school. ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”
Julie Bosman in yesterday’s NY Times summarizes the depth of Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal woes: “(T)he district’s financial problems are crippling, officials said, The enrollment loss has resulted in a steep decline in revenue for the district, which depends partly on per-pupil funding from the state. That has made it more difficult to reduce debt, maintain buildings and pay for fixed costs.”
Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan Senate back a plan now being considered by the legislature to address the financial crisis in the Detroit schools, a plan that would, according to Michigan’s EclectaBlog, form, “two districts, one which has all the debt and another which would receive all the per-pupil state and federal funding and would educate kids… A transfer of $250 million from the state’s general fund would be made to create a new DPS district. A source of funding to pay off the district’s (immediate) $515-million debt has not been identified… Detroit-area lawmakers are not happy with it, as you might imagine.”
EclectaBlog continues: “But that’s the ‘good’ plan. Another plan being rolled out in the House of Representatives is such a blatant attempt to use Shock Doctrine politics to destroy public education that it is gobsmacking in its audacity. Their plan restructures power to the democratically-elected Board of Education but not for eight years. It also strips the right of teachers to collectively bargain for anything but wages and benefits. Working conditions? Nope. Work schedules? Nope… The House’s approach would allow the new district to hire teachers with ‘alternate’ certification meaning that they wouldn’t have to be as qualified as teachers in any other school district. It would also tie teachers’ pay and benefits to student academic progress despite the fact that most of what determines a child’s success in school is tied to his or her level of poverty.”
Darnell Earley, the emergency manager of Detroit’s schools who ended his tenure yesterday at the end of February—the very same emergency fiscal manager appointed by Governor Snyder to impose austerity budgeting on Flint and the man who presided over the lead poisoning of the city’s water supply, is described by the NY Times’ Julie Bosman defining what he expected of himself as the emergency fiscal manager of Detroit’s school district. He was hired to impose austerity, and he seems satisfied with what he accomplished: “He said some of the mess had slowly been cleaned up. Enrollment, which had dropped to 45,000 this year from 150,000 in 2000, had begun to stabilize. He eliminated almost 90 administrative positions and whittled down the number of departments in the district’s central office. ‘We’ve eliminated a lot of the bureaucracy. I would like to think that we did what we needed to do. And we’ve set the Detroit Public Schools on a course of long-term financial solvency and long-term sustainability.'” Despite that he claims to have established solvency and sustainability, Earley also confesses hopelessness unless, he says, the legislature enacts the Governor’s and Senate’s plan: “Without that, all bets are off. The whole thing will just kind of bottom out.”
The editorial board of the Detroit Free Press is much clearer about the urgency of the problem than Mr. Earley seems to be: “Are the Republican leaders of the state House of Representatives so craven, so insensible to the fact that their work affects children, that they’d risk the futures of the 47,000 souls enrolled in DPS with a slate of ideologically driven ‘reforms’ sure to divide any vote along party lines? Sadly we know the answer to that.”