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Detroit’s Dying Public Schools

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit’s Public Schools are slowly dying. Those who run them would not use those words, but that’s what is happening. The schools have lost sixty-five percent of their students in the last ten years, and have closed more than three-fifths of their buildings.

There’s some evidence of better management in the last year. Enrollment may have temporarily stabilized. The schools have shed some of the top-heavy central office bureaucracy that for years drained resources and messed with education.

Other economic reforms are in place, and school officials say their budget would actually be balanced now if it wasn’t for half a billion dollars in crippling legacy debt.

But that debt isn’t going away. And, thanks in large part to charter schools and the failing experiment known as the EAA, Detroit Public Schools are getting less than half the amount of money from the state they once did. DPS is on course to run out of cash well before the school year ends in June.

Unless the state does something, it seems inevitable that the schools will spiral into bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy worked for General Motors and the City of Detroit. But the schools are different. Bankruptcy would mean potentially shifting billions of dollars in short and long-term liabilities onto the taxpayers.

Even after that, the state would still be constitutionally obligated to provide an education for the 47,000 students left in Detroit’s Public Schools. Governor Rick Snyder has a proposed solution. He came up with a plan months ago to get the schools on a secure, long-term footing. He would consolidate DPS, his Education Achievement Authority, and the charters under a new umbrella Detroit Community School District.

Detroit’s public schools themselves would be split into two districts, much as GM was during its bankruptcy. The old district would be saddled mainly with paying off the debt; the new one with educating kids.

The governor says he thinks this is a formula for “long-term success.” However, he’s been unable to get the legislature to give it the time of day. The big problem is that the plan would cost more than $700 million over the next decade.

The outstate lawmakers who control both houses mostly have little inclination to help Detroit, much less its schools. Especially by taking school aid fund money away from other districts – their districts – which is what this would mean.

The governor’s proposal is going nowhere in the last days of this session. Next year is an election year, which means it will be even harder to do difficult things.

To an extent, you can’t blame the lawmakers for being skeptical. We’ve had a long line of emergency managers who promised to fix the schools but didn’t. When the schools briefly returned to an elected board, it was worse. The schools’ image is horrible.

They were last in the news when it was discovered that one elementary school had no working toilets, and teachers had to march hundreds of kids to another building.

But fixing the schools is terribly important. Detroit will never be able to really revive as a city without a public school system people trust, and Michigan will always be crippled until we have a fully functional Detroit. Somehow, we have to find a way to get this done.

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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