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The key to fixing Detroit schools

Apr 1, 2015

Two days ago a group calling itself the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren presented its recommendations for how to fix the Detroit Public Schools.

They had some good ideas, such as creating a citywide data system so parents can better compare schools to find the best options for their children. 

The coalition also suggested better transportation, and coordination of services to better service student needs.

But most of the media attention went to two more controversial ideas. One, that the state should assume a large chunk of the system’s debt, something that seems politically unlikely.

The other was to abolish the emergency manager, and return to the schools being governed by an elected school board, a system that has proven an utter disaster.

Detroit schools have been under an emergency manager for all but five of the last sixteen years. Prior to that, a succession of elected boards seemed more interested in politics than education. Superintendents were hired, fired and given huge severance packages.

When the schools returned to an elected board ten years ago, they elected a board president who turned out to be functionally illiterate.

He was only forced out of office after he repeatedly masturbated in front of the superintendent. No, you can’t make these things up. Since then, a succession of emergency managers have tried and mostly failed to get the finances under control.

The enrollment decline has slowed in recent years, but probably because just about anyone who could flee, has. Detroit Public Schools had 150,000 students fifteen years ago.

They have less than a third of that now. Trying to fix what is still the state’s biggest school district is important for one big reason. Detroit cannot be fixed unless its schools are fixed.

You may have a place where retirees live in riverfront condos and hipsters in lofts in Midtown. But unless middle-class people can move into neighborhoods and put their kids in the local school, you don’t have and can’t have a city that works.

Nothing this commission suggests really provides a framework to get there. Their report is full of unrealistic funding expectations and half-measures.

I do think there is a way the schools might be fixed: First of all, abolish all charter schools in the city of Detroit, and abolish the governor’s pet failed project, the Education Achievement Authority. 

Put the schools under Detroit’s can-do mayor, Mike Duggan, and give him some enhanced funding and the power to appoint a czar to make them work.

Duggan says he has too much to do, but he seems to be the only one with the spirit and the know-how to get things done. Fixing the schools will be a Herculean task at best, because so many children come from families that aren’t set up to support education.

But we have to try. Right now, education is a chaotic, anarchistic mess in Detroit. The dead children found in a freezer last month hadn’t been to school in years, and neither had their surviving siblings, but nobody noticed.

Think about that.

What I suggest sounds radical, but it really isn’t. What Detroit needs most of all is a tough model for public education that works. The devil knows they’ve tried everything else.

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.