Detroit Fatigue

By on May 14th, 2015

Columns
Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit Fatigue

May 15, 2015


DETROIT – Nobody can deny that for years, Detroit Public Schools have been a tremendous failure. Four emergency managers have failed to reverse staggering enrollment declines, or get the district’s debt under control. Nor are the students learning what they should; they are drastically behind the rest of the state.

But what can anybody do about it?

The governor has a bold plan to radically restructure the district. A community group, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren, has a competing plan.

It’s not clear is whether either can get through the legislature. What is perfectly clear is how bad the schools are.

The numbers say it all. As recently as 2000, Detroit Public Schools had 167,085 students. Today, that’s down to 47,238.

There are slightly more Detroit kids in charters, which are another form of public school. But those haven’t been the answer either. According to a graphic released by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, Detroit Public School students are performing far below the state average in every area measured – math, reading, writing, science and social studies. But charter students did considerably worse, except for social studies, where the groups are nearly tied.

As for finances – as of March, DPS’s deficit had grown to $170 million. Worse, the schools owed $53 million to the state pension system and hadn’t even made a payment since October. That means hundreds of thousands a month in interest penalties.

So now what?

In March, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a broad-based group that included members of the business community, unveiled its plan, which called for the state to assume some of DPS’s debt, most of which has been piled up during the years the schools have been under state control.

The coalition proposed a complex structure which would return the schools to the control of an elected school board, but which would also call for a mayor-appointed “Detroit Education Commission” to oversee the opening of new and closing of old schools.

Late last month, Snyder unveiled his plan to fix Detroit’s schools. In some ways, it resembles what happened with General Motors during its bankruptcy. The district would be divided in two.

The entity called Detroit Public Schools would no longer educate students, but be solely responsible for paying off the debt, which they would do by using the existing millage. Then, presumably, the old DPS would go out of business.

The students themselves would be educated by a new entity called the City of Detroit Education District.

This would be governed by an appointed board, four members to be chosen by the governor; three by the mayor. However, within two years this would begin gradually transitioning to an all-elected board by 2021.
The costs of educating the kids would be covered in part by the annual per-pupil grant of about $7,000 the state pays for every public school child in the state. Since that would not be enough to cover the costs, the governor would also want to supplement this with about $72 million a year from the School Aid Fund, which would mean perhaps $50 less a year for every other student in the state.

The governor’s plan was seen as promising by the editorial pages of Detroit’s major newspapers – but was widely attacked elsewhere. Some said it took too long to restore local control.

Casandra Ulbrich, the vice-chair of the State Board of Education, noted that the governor fails to address the problem of failed, out-of-control charter schools.

“This governor refuses to take on the authorizers or the charter school lobby and limit their abilities in any way,” said Ulbrich, who has a PhD and has spent her life working in higher education.

Unless he does that, she added, his plan will be “another Band-Aid that will result in failure.”

She was particularly irked that the governor would create the post of “Education Manager” with the power to close schools – but “doesn’t mention who is responsible for opening of new schools.”

A spokesman for the governor said the manager could authorize new replacement schools, but Ulbrich said that wasn’t the same thing; that it still left public schools at a disadvantage.

However, the governor’s spokesman said they weren’t playing favorites; “the intention is to hold all public schools in the city, both traditional and charter, accountable on the education of children.
“Detroit’s comeback won’t be complete until all its public schools are strong,” he added.

That may take a while. Though complaints from the left seemed louder, the governor’s main problem may be his fellow Republicans in the legislature, who aren’t eager to give Detroit schools more money.
Some members grumbled about “Detroit fatigue.” Getting them to agree to a plan that cut spending for pupils elsewhere seemed likely to be a near-impossible sell.

There is also wide belief that the governor’s program to deal with Detroit’s worst schools, the Educational Achievement Authority, has largely been a financial disaster and an educational failure, though the governor himself insists on continuing with it.

However, Tom Watkins, a Democrat who was state superintendent of schools from 2001-2005 is largely supportive.

“I appreciate the willingness on the part of Governor Snyder to try to do something to assure the children of Detroit get the education they need and deserve,” said Watkins, now head of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority.

“We need to reframe the debate. Is this about adult needs or what our children need and deserve? It needs to be about the kids. Is the current system working? The answer is a resounding NO!”

On that, few would disagree.

Agreeing what to do next is the hard part. But with Detroit Public Schools failing to educate and bleeding money and students at a terrifying rate, failing to act may no longer be an option for long.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a  consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.

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