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Snyder's plan to overhaul Detroit Public Schools

The former Carstens Elementary School building, on Detroit's east side, is one of many, many schools that have been shuttered in Detroit.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio
Detroit Public Schools is offering 45 schools to charter companies.

Governor Snyder rolled out his plan today to overhaul education in Detroit and get Detroit Public Schools out of the deep, deep hole it’s in now.

DPS is reportedly the worst-performing urban school district in the country, with years of falling enrollment and $2 billion in crippling debt.

And that debt isn’t just inconvenient. It’s getting in the way of kids’ academics.   

According to Snyder’s office, DPS is spending $1,100 per pupil to pay off its debt.

“That money never makes it to the classroom,” Snyder's office says in a press release.

How would this get rid of Detroit Public Schools' debt, exactly?

The governor's plan calls for breaking the current Detroit Public Schools district into two districts.

It's kind of like when General Motors went through bankruptcy: the "old" GM took on all the debt, while the "new" GM got a fresh start.

The “old” district would still be called DPS, and it would use the school taxes it collects to pay down the $2 billion debt, instead of sending that money to Lansing.

Meanwhile, all 47,000 students would be educated in a “new” district, to be called the City of Detroit Education District. And that would mean about $72 million a year from the school aid fund. 

It's kind of like when General Motors went through bankruptcy: the “old” GM took on all the debt, while the “new” GM got a fresh start.

An empty classroom
Credit User Motown31 / Creative Commons
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
O.k., o.k., we know this one is empty, but some high school students in the Detroit Public Schools say their classroom are far from empty.

Does this mean less money for other kids in Michigan?

Assuming lawmakers don't replace that $72 million to the school aid fund, yes. 

According to the Citizens Research Council, that loss would translate to about $50 less for every student outside DPS.

So, it’s a bailout, right?

That’s certainly not the term Governor Snyder wants people to use.

But lots of lawmakers –not to mention parents around the state – will see it as a bailout.

Snyder’s response to that is basically:

"I don't view it as a bailout, when it's really in the context of getting something stable and working well."

1)   If Michigan is ever going to fully recover economically, Detroit has to be a functioning city with decent schools

2)   Some DPS debt is backed by the state, and if the district were to default, he says that would be a lot more expensive for the state

“If you look at much of the debt owed by the Detroit Public Schools today, these are bonds that are backed by state credit,” says Snyder.

“I don’t view it as a bailout, when it’s really in the context of getting something stable and working well. That’s why I was very supportive of the grand bargain [in Detroit’s bankruptcy.] It wasn’t about putting money in something that’s going to continue to go downhill.”

Boy in classroom with his hand raised
Credit Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A charter advocacy group gives Michigan's charter law a passing grade

State lawmakers would have to approve the governor's plan. And that's far from a sure thing. 

Is this going to become a pattern for other failing school districts?

It kind of already is.

Both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park schools went through a similar overhaul, although those districts were converted to all-charter districts. That is not the governor's plan for Detroit.

But as far as retiring the debt, the mechanisms are really similar: the "old" districts are keeping the tax dollars they would have sent to the state, to pay down the debt, while the "new" districts draw additional state aid to pay for ongoing education.

Why would this plan work, when so many efforts to fix Detroit schools have failed?

That’s the bajillion dollar question.

But, this is meant to be more of a financial and leadership overhaul than a deep-dive into all of the root reasons why the education system is struggling in Detroit.

The district split is a step towards tackling the debt.

But it also creates a new leadership structure – one that, at first, isn’t going to be publicly elected.

If you’re a city resident, that might be bad news. If you’re a Lansing lawmaker looking at sending a whole bunch of new money to Detroit, that’s good news.

The current elected Detroit school board would get shunted over to the “old” district.

While the “new” district (the one with all the actual, you know, students) will be run by a brand new “Detroit Education Commission.”

The mayor and the governor would appoint people to that commission.

And then gradually those appointees would be replaced by board members elected by the public.

What’s more, that Detroit Education Commission would oversee a common enrollment system and “Detroit Education Manager” with charter schools.

That’s to make the enrollment process easier for parents, according to Snyder. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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