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Someone needs to be blamed for Detroit Public Schools' Head Start funding loss

Jack Lessenberry

I woke up this morning feeling sorry for someone I admire, the distinguished and dignified educator Glenda Price, a woman who didn’t even live in Michigan till late middle age, but who has made immense contributions to this community.

Last year, Price gallantly agreed to take on leadership of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, which tries to raise money to help the city’s terribly troubled public schools.

That’s a fairly thankless task, and one that just got a lot harder. We learned this week that thanks to incompetence, laziness, stupidity or most likely all three, the district failed or forgot to apply for federal Head Start funding this year. That is absolutely mind-blowing.

Head Start is perhaps the best anti-poverty program the federal government ever invented. And it is needed in Detroit more than almost anywhere. Almost 80% of Detroit School children live in poverty. They are unlikely to be ready for school. Early intervention is crucial, and Head Start has been vital in giving a boost to hundreds of four-year-olds every year. But not this year.

Detroit Public Schools lost more than $4 million because they didn’t file their application on time. What is even worse is that no one has been publicly humiliated and fired. Someone needs to be.

Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Jack Martin has not appeared in public to apologize, beg forgiveness, or explain. No. We only found out because of the superb reporting of Chastity Pratt Dawsey, now with the Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine.

When the schools’ horrible error was revealed, what we got were excuses. Michelle Zdrodwski, the PR spokesperson, chirped that this was due to “technical difficulties uploading the information.”

Apparently every other district in the nation managed to figure it out, but never mind. Zdrodwski then attempted to convince the media not to worry, and said the district could provide adequate pre-education with Great Start Readiness money from the state.

That really is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. The fact is that Detroit Public Schools lost more than 900 federally funded pre-kindergarten slots in 56 classrooms.

These are children for whom Head Start was often the only hope for being ready for school. Keith Johnson, the head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, reacted more appropriately. “Someone didn’t do (their) job,” he said, adding, “I’m livid. In a district that is already financially strapped, we cannot afford to lose any funding … It’s not like they didn’t know,” he added.

Well, here’s something we do know. The Detroit Public Schools are perhaps the worst example of a failed district in the nation. When today’s high school seniors were born, DPS had 183,000 students. They have barely one-fourth of that number today. Nearly everyone who can leave has.

What’s left are the most needy of all, kids for whom education is the only hope. And once again, these schools have let them down, and the district doesn’t even seem to care.

There will be a lot of finger-pointing and political posturing, but the bottom line is this: Without public education that works, the city has no chance of ever attracting middle-class families.

For Detroit, this is one giant step backwards.

UPDATE: The poverty number cited above is the percentage of DPS students who live in poverty. The data comes from the number of children eligible for the free lunch program.

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. 

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