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How to fix Detroit Public Schools

May 11, 2015

Whatever your politics, here’s something hard to deny: Detroit Public Schools are a terrible failure, and have been for years.

Four emergency managers have failed to stop a staggering hemorrhage of students, or make the schools any kind of academic success. Nor have they managed to get the district’s ballooning deficit under control. The numbers tell the tale.

Detroit Public Schools had 167,000 students at the turn of the century, barely fifteen years ago. Only 47,000 are left today.

The deficit is $170 million. Worse, the district owes $53 million to the state pension system and apparently hasn’t made a payment since last fall, which in turn means more penalties.

Clearly, this can’t go on financially. And there’s a deeper problem: If Detroit is ever going to be a real city again, one where normal people want to live, it needs a public school system where they can confidently put their children.

It’s as simple as that. Even if you cleaned up the crime and brought in boatloads of new jobs, few other than hipsters and the elderly will live there unless there are schools they can trust.

Right now there are two plans to overhaul the schools. At the end of March, a group of community and business leaders called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren offered theirs. It calls for the immediate return of power to an elected board, and also for the creation of a Detroit Education Commission to oversee the opening and closing of all schools in the city, both DPS and charters.

The coalition also calls on the state to assume a good chunk of the public schools’ debt, noting that most has been racked up since they’ve been under state control.

Governor Snyder then presented his plan. It would divide the schools into an old DPS, which would only exist to eliminate the deficit, and a new “City of Detroit Education District” to educate the students, with the help of new state funds.

But Casandra Ulbrich, a member of the state board of education, has one big problem with the governor’s plan.

As she told me, “This governor refuses to take on the charter school lobby and limit their abilities in any way.”

The governor would create an “education manager” who could close schools and open replacement schools. But she says it is unclear who would be responsible for the opening of new Detroit Public Schools, if needed.

Meanwhile, there is nothing to prevent a charter school operator from opening up a school across from a successful Detroit public school in an attempt to lure away their students.

By the way, if you think charters have a better education record in Detroit, think again. Detroit students are indeed performing far below the state average.

But according to a poster distributed by the governor’s office, charter performance in nearly every category was significantly lower than that of Detroit public school students. 

Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, says the biggest need is for all the adults to check their wants and egos and construct education reform that’s in the best interests of the kids.

Perhaps the best features of both plans can be combined. But something has to be done, and quickly.

What’s happening now just can’t go on.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.