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Report chronicles steep rise, fall of DPS

Loveland Technologies

What happened to Detroit Public Schools?

How did Michigan's largest school system go from boom in the 1840s – packing students into makeshift classrooms in storefronts, churches, and houses because it couldn’t keep up with demand – to bust? In the last 15 years DPS has closed almost 200 schools, and now teeters on the brink of collapse.

Detroit-based Loveland Technologies set out to answer that question in a report compiled after 18 months of research, using 200 years’ worth of documents and records.

Early boom years

Detroit in the early 20th century was marked by an exponential population growth. As the automobile industry brought thousands of immigrants to the growing city, enrollment in Detroit Public Schools rose quickly: 180 new school buildings were built between 1910 and 1930. The report says after World War II, enrollment in DPS hit 250,000. 

The decline begins (and it's earlier than you might think)

Beginning in the 1950s, the Big Three were moving factories to the city's suburbs. The plants took with them tax revenue, jobs – and as many as 15,000 students between 1966 and 1971. This exodus caused immense economic difficulties for the city. From the report:

“The loss of students also decreased state funding for Detroit schools, which are given a fixed dollar number per student enrolled. Each student leaving cost the district thousands of dollars in revenue that had been counted on to pay for recent construction and modernization, leaving the district carrying the cost of more buildings than it needed, as well as the very recent construction costs associated with building them.”

The end of de-facto segregation and court-mandated busing programs contributed to these enrollment changes. Changing social attitudes were difficult for the city schools to keep up with, and “the downward spiral of enrollment, reduced funding, and disinvestment in schools” led to further losses in enrollment.

Beginning in the 1970s, school districts in Detroit saw more empty desks than students. The first recorded wave of closures began in 1976, when 14 schools closed. Enrollment fell below 200,000 students by 1982, triggering the closure of 15 more schools. Nine more schools closed at the beginning of the 1990 school year.

A changing academic landscape 

In 1994, the state authorized public school academies, also known as charter schools. These institutions were privately-run, but could receive state funding. Charter schools quickly became an alternative for many Detroit families, and by 2013 the number of charter school students eclipsed those enrolled in Detroit Public Schools.

More closures, higher costs

In the midst of this exodus to charter schools, DPS had launched a massive school construction and modernization program. In 2002, 12 new schools were opened or under construction, but DPS continued to lose students and funding. 

To try and recover from that financial loss, DPS started closing schools. But this set in motion a kind of death spiral for the district, since with each round of closures, more students fled the system. Between 2000 and 2003, DPS closed and merged 15 schools. The following year, 6,000 students left DPS. The district closed six more schools in 2005, and another 26 in 2006. 

As the report reveals, the hidden costs of closing schools often wiped out whatever benefits were predicted. The costs of securing buildings often exceeded projections, and sometimes the district dumped money into buildings that were reconfigured to accept new students, only to close them a few years later. To put it bluntly, the strategy that was supposed to save the district from financial ruin seemed to just speed its downward spiral:

"The closures, intended to save money, instead accelerated the decline of the school district. Each closing brought new protests, more parents removing their students from the district, and corresponding decreases in enrollment and funding."

A timeline of political corruption

The report also reveals the political corruption underlying the failing Detroit public schools system. As early as the 1930s, political and special-interest groups swayed Detroit's public school boards. The pressures of these groups  slowed the decision-making processes within school boards. Decisive leadership disappeared. School board members were constantly being recalled and replaced. In the 1970s, corruption continued to poison the public's trust when inappropriate spending of taxpayer money was revealed.  

In response to Detroit's school board corruption, DPS teachers held protests against their low wages and the deteriorating conditions in schools. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, strikes would shut down schools for weeks at a time.

Corruption continued into the 21st century. The state of Michigan took control of Detroit Public Schools twice, first in 1999, and again in 2005, during times of financial and educational instability. These interim school boards achieved little notable success. 

Credit Loveland Technologies
Long Term Budget Deficit Per Year

Since 2009, Detroit Public Schools have had a total of four emergency managers. None of these leaders has been able to stabilize the school district or its finances. In fact, according to the statistics gathered in the report, the district's budget deficit increased every year after the appointment of an emergency manager. 

After-closure consequences

A total of 195 public schools in Detroit were closed between 2000 and 2015, with a 71% decrease in enrollment. Of the 195 closed schools, 81 are currently vacant and unused; 45 are abandoned and open to trespass, 37 are secured, and 26 are completely exposed to the elements. 

The Loveland Technologies report explored what the options are for these now empty, unused schools. Two options are mentioned: reuse or demolition. 

According to the report, reuse is the most ideal outcome for a closed school building. However, because of the age and poor condition of the buildings, many are not eligible for reuse. And, because of the sheer number of vacant school buildings in Detroit, it is difficult to find legitimate buyers.

Other vacant schools were demolished when they were deemed no longer worth saving or of future value to the community. Demolition can be very expensive, and the cost is not factored into the financial savings associated with closing schools. 

How did we get here and where should we go?

The Loveland Technologies report, in its final summary, is trying to answer this question: How did it get to this point?

In its conclusion, the study places some of the blame on the rapid growth and decline of the city, some on the political corruption and poor financial decisions made by school and government officials, and some on the movement of students from public schools to suburban or charter ones.

Today there are 31,349 empty seats in active Detroit public schools.

Nevertheless the facts remain: Today there are 31,349 empty seats in active Detroit public schools. Of the active schools, 30 are below 50% capacity. Ten of the active schools are below 35% capacity.  

The report predicts the future of Detroit public schools as a "no-win scenario." No increased enrollment in Detroit public schools and no respite from the dire financial situation are envisioned by the report.

The report also predicts that DPS will soon be faced with a stark decision to "lose/consolidate the lowest-performing schools, or maintain them at reduced levels despite the increased cost.”

The study's conclusion places the future of DPS in a dubious light, revealing what is possible if the problems go unchecked:

“This cycle of student loss and school closure will continue until the district is no longer economically viable, leading to its collapse within the next two years barring major intervention at the local or state level.”

The Loveland report says federal intervention is the DPS's best bet to cure its debt crisis and overall instability. The report also believes that efficient phasing-out of schools is key. Efficient school closings would minimize disruptions for students and better prepare the vacant buildings before being marketed to potential buyers. 

“For the last five years the state has done the absolute minimum to keep the district running, never fully supporting programs like the EAA,” commented Grover in an interview with Michigan Radio.

“The rescue plan being discussed now is underfunded, and will merely kick the crisis can down the block for a few more years. If what the state really wants is a charter school system, they need to fully commit to that and begin the orderly wind-down of DPS. If the state wants a public school system in Detroit, it has to fully commit to supporting it.”