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Michigan's public schools need leaders with vision and guts

There was a little bit of good news about Detroit’s public schools this week, perhaps the first good news in a long time. The Michigan Department of Education is formally taking the school district off so-called “high-risk” list. This means, essentially, that the state will no longer have to approve virtually everything the system does. It also means the system won’t have to put purchases over $25,000 out for bid.

But I think too much is being made of this. Yes, it is a good thing. We should think of this, however, more as if Detroit Public Schools were a patient in the hospital. Their condition has just been upgraded, but only from extremely critical to critical.

Yes, Detroit Public Schools will be able to apply for more state and federal grants, which is huge. This will hopefully make life easier for Glenda Price, one of Detroit’s too-little appreciated heroes, who tries to supplement the schools’ meager resources by raising money through the Detroit Public Schools foundation.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking the schools are in anything like okay shape, because they aren’t. The upgrade was only possible because Detroit’s schools have been run for years now by a series of tight-fisted emergency managers. 

And they aren’t coming out of emergency manager status any time soon. Despite careful attention to the purse strings, the schools‘ deficit is growing, not shrinking. It‘s about $80 million now.

Jack Martin, the new emergency manager, says this deficit will be wiped out in about three years. Well, maybe, But we‘ve heard overconfident predictions before.

You know what else Detroit Public Schools have been celebrating? Their enrollment is down about a thousand kids. Why is that good news? Because it is the smallest drop in a long time.

Detroit Public Schools today have about 48,000 kids. Ten years ago, they had more than a 150,000. The landscape of Detroit is littered with closed and crumbling school buildings. Barely a decade ago, taxpayers poured hundreds of millions into fixing some of these buildings, all for nothing.

But if you think Detroit is a special case, think again. Remember what I‘ve said before. Detroit is the canary in the coal mine.Yesterday, the investors‘ service Moody’s revealed it had downgraded the status of 53 districts across Michigan since the start of this year. Nobody will be surprised to learn those districts included Detroit and Pontiac. But they included places like Brighton and Clarkston, Ann Arbor, Avondale, Petoskey and yes, even Grosse Pointe.

What‘s happening is that students are fleeing public schools for the charters. The Schools of Choice program has drained money and students from districts like Lansing and Pontiac.

We are older, we are having fewer kids, Proposal A no longer works very well, and our ideologically polarized lawmakers are unable or unwilling to do anything about all of this.

The model for public education we grew up with isn’t cutting it anymore, just when we need education more than ever. If we are to have any future, we need leaders with both vision and guts. And we need them now. 

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

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