Detroit Schools’ Pending Fiscal Collapse Endangers Over 45,000 Children

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.”

What Does the So-Called Corporate Takeover of Government Mean?

Democracy has failed in Michigan.  In November, 2012, voters repealed a state law permitting the governor to impose state appointed austerity fiscal managers on local jurisdictions, but the legislature came back by the end of the year with a new, un-repealable, emergency manager law.  For years the state emergency managers running Flint’s water system have insulted citizens who complained about water quality at the same time the same officials knew about the rising level of lead and other toxic substances in the water but kept poisoning Flint’s children anyway.  And state emergency managers in Detroit’s public schools have run up a cumulative deficit of $3.5 billion at the same time they have neglected the decaying conditions in which children are expected to learn and teachers to work.  Citizens in Michigan’s poorest communities have been rendered powerless by the loss of checks and balances.

Through weeks’ of rolling sick-outs, Detroit’s teachers have tried to bring attention to the roof leaks and buckling gym floors and rodents (alive and dead) littering the buildings where they work.  Although photographs in newspapers have been distressing,  Michigan’s laws, as they have been adjusted in recent years, don’t really provide a path for citizens to regain control.  So last Thursday, according to Corey Mitchell writing for Education Week,  “The Detroit Federation of Teachers, along with the American Federation of Teachers… filed a lawsuit against Detroit public schools and Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, alleging that the district has failed to ‘provide a minimally adequate education and to properly maintain the schools.’  Parents and students are also named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the latest volley in a frenzied legal struggle between teachers and the leadership of the troubled state-run school district… Recent inspections of schools by city workers have uncovered numerous code violations including issues with mold, rodents, broken glass, and leaking roofs.  The lawsuit said district officials, including Earley, have allowed the condition of the schools to ‘deteriorate to the point of crisis’….” Mitchell adds that Darnell Earley, Detroit Public Schools’ current emergency fiscal manager—and previously the state emergency manager involved with Flint’s water poisoning—has turned (unsuccessfully) to the courts to try to prevent protests by teachers.  Now the teachers’ union is turning to the courts to demand that the state eliminate conditions that violate established building codes. We will have to watch to see if the courts can correct the overreach of the executive and legislative branches of Michigan’s government.

Jared Bernstein—formerly an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and before that on staff at the Economic Policy Institute, and currently on staff at the Washington, D.C. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—tries to help us put Michigan’s governance crisis in perspective: “I’m a hard-boiled policy wonk who’s been around the block enough times that I see little that surprises or shocks me.  But the recently publicized water crisis in Flint, Mich., did both.  The depth of government failure, the neglect and mistreatment of an already deeply vulnerable population, the potentially permanent damage to children’s brains, and the series of events that led to this tragic debacle, must be carefully examined for at least two reasons.  First, the fact that the richest economy on the globe failed to provide an essential public good is a symptom of government failure with which we must reckon.  Second such failure is not a benign accident.  It’s not a passive failure of lazy oversight.  It is a strategy to first break and then discredit the public sector, to undermine trust and inculcate disgust.  The beneficiaries of this strategy are the wealthy who will then push for smaller government and tax cuts.  Those who pay the price will be the people much like those in Flint.  And there are many more of the latter than the former.”

Bernstein describes the strategy of the so-called “corporate” reformers: “(W)e must recognize that government failure is not an accident.  It is a strategy of those who benefit from less government.”  “Fiscal cliffs, threats to default on the national debt, government shutdowns, the collapse of the budget process, unwillingness to compromise, ignoring facts and science that challenge ideology, and of course, as in Flint, the failure to provide basic public goods—all of these can make people say one of two things: 1) ‘the government is a corrupt mess with which I want nothing to do,’ or 2) ‘we cannot have a fair economy or decent society without a well functioning government.  So let’s get to work to make that happen.’  The problem with #1, of course, is that it denies the uncontroversial recognition that quality public goods are a hallmark of an advanced economy…. The problem with #2 is it is not clear how to ‘make that happen.'”

How does this all derive from our growing plutocracy?  Bernstein explains: “It is particularly hard to defend a functioning public sector when the concentration of wealth interacts with our uniquely money-fueled politics and policy.  Forty percent of the wealth in this country is held by the top 1 percent of households, and political science has clearly shown that politics favors their preferences and protects their wealth… Meanwhile, 42 percent of Flint residents are poor, compared to 17 percent for the state of Michigan… Racism is also in play: 57 percent of Flint residents are black, compared to 14 percent statewide… There are a lot more people who need a functioning government than exist in the top 1 percent.”

Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder has tried to diffuse responsibility by doing just what Bernstein describes: discrediting government at all levels—federal, state, and local.  In The Flint Disaster is Rick Snyder’s Fault, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank explains why we should not accept Governor Snyder’s attempt to convince us that, in Bernstein’s words, “government at all levels is a corrupt mess with which I want nothing to do.”  Milbank pins the blame on Snyder himself and on his philosophy of governing:

“(T)he Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally.  It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: (Governor) Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business… The governor, former head of Gateway computers, was first elected as part of the tea party wave of 2010 with a plan to use his tech industry skills to run Michigan. He spoke of ‘outcomes’ and ‘deliverables,’ called residents ‘customers’ and sought to ‘reinvent’ the state to make it business-friendly.  A centerpiece of Snyder’s agenda, and one of his first actions, was a new law that gave the state dramatic powers to take over failing municipalities and school districts by appointing emergency managers with unchecked authority.  Michigan voters killed that law in a November 2012 referendum, but a month later Snyder got the legislature, in a lame-duck session, to enact a law very similar to the one voters had rejected. This time legislators attached it to a spending bill so it couldn’t be undone by referendum.  The unelected viceroys had mandates to improve municipal finances but little incentive to weigh other considerations… Snyder undertook an arrogant public policy experiment, underpinned by the ideological assumption that the ‘experience set’ of corporate-style managers was superior to the checks and balances of democracy.  This is why Flint happened.”

A huge question as we move into February will be whether the stories of Flint’s water and Detroit’s public schools will just slip to the back pages of the paper and then out of the news altogether.  Or will we continue to pay attention to their meaning? Flint’s water-poisoning catastrophe and the deplorable deterioration of the Detroit Public Schools are evidence that our politics have dangerously veered away from the principles we learned in basic civics.

If you haven’t read Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman’s important piece on Michigan from last week, check out Michigan’s Great Stink.  (This blog explored Krugman’s important piece here, and recently covered the problem of the loss of democratic governance in Michigan here, here and here.)

Democracy in Michigan Has Been Poisoned Along with Flint’s Drinking Water

The problem in Flint, Michigan that now has a lead-poisoned water system; and in Highland Park, Michigan where the for-profit Leona Group, a charter management organization, was brought in by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the public schools but went broke instead; and in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, where the for-profit Mosaica Education, a charter management organization, was brought in by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the public schools but went broke instead, is that Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts can, under a 2012 law, be taken over by the state and operated by an emergency fiscal manager appointed by the governor. And the current governor does not have a background in public service, reports Amber Phillips of  the Washington Post: “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), (was) a tech venture capitalist who was elected in 2010 on a platform to fix the state’s ‘disaster’ economy….”

Claire Groden, writing for Fortune, explains Michigan’s abrogation of democracy under the current governor: “(A)t the time that Flint flipped the switch in April 2014 to send the river’s highly corrosive water through lead pipes, the predominantly African-American city didn’t have a working local government… Five years ago Snyder signed legislation that expanded the reasons why the state could choose to appoint a municipal emergency manager, then granted those appointees almost complete power over their assigned municipalities. Under Public Act 4, as it was called, state-appointed emergency managers could break collective bargaining agreements, fire elected officials and determine their salaries, and privatize or sell public assets… Emergency management is a way to short-circuit democracy when a city faces financial insolvency, with the idea that a leader free from accountability to voters can make unpopular but necessary decisions.  But Michigan voters rejected that law in a state-wide referendum… A month later, the state legislature passed a replacement law that made minor adjustments and one major one: an appropriation banning a referendum on the new law.  That was 2012.  By 2013, six Michigan cities—and almost half of the state’s African-American population—were under emergency management.  In many of these cities, public services were pared down to the minimum.  Pontiac’s emergency manager whittled the city’s employees to around 10% of their previous number.” (Here is what happened in Pontiac.)

State emergency managers can override not only elected city councils but also be imposed on public school districts where they can overrule the elected local school board.  In Detroit, where the schools have been operated by an emergency fiscal manager for some years, neither have the bills been paid, nor have required contributions been made to the state teachers’ pension fund, nor have the school buildings been maintained, nor has class size been controlled.  Even the finances—the specific thing emergency fiscal managers are supposed to take care of—have been mismanaged. Short-term borrowing has been regularly turned into long-term obligations that now total $3.5 billion.

Emergency managers in Michigan are limited to terms of 18 months under the 2012 law, which might curtail the damage any one of them could possibly impose, but Governor Rick Snyder has found a way to skirt that provision of the law.  After an emergency manager has served for 17 months and twenty-nine days, that manager resigns and another is appointed.  Snyder has continued to shuffle around the same people.  Darnell Earley, the emergency manager responsible for the lead poisoning of Flint’s water, is currently serving as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

Here is a review from yesterday’s NY Times of what happened in Flint: “From 2011 to 2015, Flint was in state receivership…. Flint, led at the time by an emergency manager who was appointed by the state to help solve the city’s fiscal woes, switched water supplies in April 2014—in part to save money, which… amounted to $1 million to $2 million a year.” State agencies repeatedly lied about the poisoning of Flint’s water, but local leaders lacked the power to expose the statewide cover-up, and the children continued to drink contaminated water.  The ultimate result has neither saved Flint nor the state of Michigan any money. The Washington Post’s Phillips reports: “In October, the state paid $12 million to switch Flint back to Detroit’s water system.”  Unfortunately the failure over a period of many months to add anti-corrosives to the water leaves the system vulnerable to the continued leaching of lead into the water even after the switch back to Detroit’s system.

Austerity, not structural reform, has been the operating model for the emergency managers in Michigan’s poor cities and school districts.  Fortune‘s Claire Groden explains: “Critics of the emergency manager law have long protested that the appointees cut services to realize short-term savings, with little eye to the long-term structural problems the cities face. ‘ The assertion is that these are cities that are running deficits because the elected governments are not capable of keeping spending under control.  The problem from my perspecteive is that these really are structural deficits… it’s almost impossible for anyone to solve these problems,’  says Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University…. Structural problems like the fact that 40% of Flint’s residents live in poverty—presenting an impossible tax base for the city to draw upon—go unanswered.”

Yesterday, Julie Bosman reported for the NY Times on the impact of years’ of emergency management of Detroit’s schools, where the teachers have been staging rolling sick-outs to try to bring attention to the conditions in the buildings where they work: “Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse.  On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools… Things have become so bad, district officials say, that the Detroit public school system could be insolvent by April.”

The stories of Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts demonstrate our society’s willingness to impose austerity instead of addressing our collective failure through federal and state government to provide financial support when local communities and school districts, segregated by race and poverty, utterly lack the capacity to fund essential services. We are further willing to disenfranchise and disempower the citizens of these cities and school districts by destroying the democratic institutions designed to protect their votes and their voices.

Will Michigan find a way to restore democracy for its poorest citizens?

In a commentary published on Monday in the Detroit Free Press, Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU of Michigan, presses for the repeal of Michigan’s law that grants the governor power to impose appointed overseers on Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts: “Little has been said… about… a law that gives a political appointee unfettered power to make decisions that will affect a community, without democratic accountability.  This lack of checks and balances on government is a civil rights issue.  The law does not require that an emergency manager have any expertise outside the financial arena and, to that end, allowed him (in Flint) to elevate the financial bottom line above all else. It enabled a revolving door of emergency managers in Flint with no ties to that community and yet unfettered power to make decisions that affect them.”

This blog has covered the theft of democracy by Michigan’s emergency fiscal managers two other times this week, here and here.