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DPS: Equally Tragic

What if it were my child?

Everyone in Michigan, and the nation, asks themselves that question as they contemplate the Flint water crisis. Long-term cognitive damage is possible for young children with elevated lead levels in their system.

Everyone agrees the Flint water situation represents a catastrophic failure of government at all levels. While it is being investigated, the governor and the Legislature are rapidly appropriating funds to implement early childhood interventions, provide emergency resources and begin the removal of lead pipes.

Meanwhile, a catastrophe of nearly equal proportions, the collapse and mismanagement of the Detroit Public Schools, remains a political football. An entire generation of students will struggle to overcome their education (or lack thereof) from the nation’s lowest performing big-city school district. Their exposure to the district will cause no permanent brain damage, but their ability to overcome the experience may be equally daunting.

What if it were my child?

Like the lead pipes in Flint, this catastrophe is not limited to the Detroit Public Schools. Flint students suffer from similar education policies. All inner-city students and schools are struggling through Michigan’s market-based education reforms of choice and unfettered charter school development, but none are so damaged as Detroit.

The Detroit Public Schools have lost some 115,000 students since 2002 to charters, to schools of choice, to middle class flight, to population loss and to a declining birthrate. In a system where all operational resources follow the child, it is impossible to stabilize these schools with existing policies.

Governor Snyder, to his credit, is listening. Snyder asked Detroit community leaders — the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren — to study the many education problems in the city, report their findings and make recommendations for a newly managed district going forward.

Their report, The Choice is Ours, is eye opening. It is pragmatic. It reflects concerns all should share, if we care about our urban areas and our state.

Detroit’s schools rank last in achievement among the nation’s largest schools. 230 buildings have been closed, repurposed or reconfigured since 2000. All of this churn hasn’t improved student education. Just five of the 95 buildings serving 47,000 students exceed the state average in reading and seven in math. Children are struggling to learn throughout the system, as exceeding the state average is nothing to write home about. Michigan’s reading scores have fallen to 35th in the nation.

And the conditions in many buildings are deplorable. The sick-outs staged by teachers this year weren’t focused on wages, but instead on environmental conditions that would better reflect schools in third-world countries than in what was once one of the nation’s richest cities. Broken windows, warped floors, mold in ceilings and floors, rodents in classrooms.

What if it were my child?

Some would say more charters are the answer. A few years ago, many Detroiters would have said the same thing.

Today, after studying the effect of charter schools in Detroit, the Coalition is suggesting we pump the brakes on unfettered charter development. The for-profit charter model is a large part of the problem, they say, because charters — like fast-food restaurants — open in population centers. Detroit has the most charter schools in the state in every category — charter schools opened, charter schools closed. They come and they go based on enrollment, on achievement, on their location and the abilities of their managers.

The Detroit Coalition recommends a Detroit Education Commission to help stabilize enrollment; to slow the competition for students and provide some semblance of financial stability to the schools that remain in the city.

“Some neighborhoods have far too many schools, others have far too few,” say Coalition members, who report the average student travels 3.4 miles each way to school, with 10 percent more than 6.7 miles each way in a system that has NO transportation save for Detroit’s bus system, which is notoriously inefficient and insufficient. Parents say gangs prey on their children, some of whom have to be up and out on the streets by 5 a.m. to catch city buses to travel eight or nine miles to school.

What if it were my child?

Most of the attention to the Detroit Public School problem is focused like a laser on debt accumulated under emergency managers who lack the tools to stabilize a district that has lost115,000 students since 2002. The district has approximately $515 million in debt that will be borne by the state if it collapses; the governor recommends another $200 million to get a “new” system up and running, while the existing district continues to collect property taxes to retire more than $1 billion in bond debt.

To his credit, the governor recommends the state use tobacco settlement funds to retire this debt, which will resolve the problem without taking money from all Michigan’s districts to resolve the problems of one.

While the debt is staggering, it pales in comparison to the inattention of lawmakers who ignore the charter and choice policies that threaten schools in every urban center. Even a district like Grand Rapids, one that enjoys extraordinary community support, today has roughly half the student population it boasted in the late 1990s, when it was the second largest district in the state.

A recent Citizens Research Council report found 72 percent of Michigan’s school districts suffer declining enrollment.

Urban centers lead the list. Some method to control student population is absolutely necessary if the new entity proposed by the governor and the commission is to avoid the same fate as the existing Detroit Public Schools. Still, this proposal has been met with harsh criticism by choice and charter advocates. They have enlisted members of the Michigan House to introduce their own reform plan for Detroit, one that would essentially eliminate traditional public schools in favor of more charters.

None of the House proposals resemble any portion of the Coalition recommendations. The House would perpetuate what the Coalition calls a uniquely dysfunctional system and, indeed, double down on policies that undermine traditional public schools and have been rejected by the Legislature in the past.

“No other city in the country has a system of schools quite like that of Detroit,” write Coalition leaders. “It is hardly a system but instead an uncoordinated hodgepodge of schools …

“The reality is that Detroit has 14 different districts and authorizers, each with its own set of standards and expectations, each with the authority to open and close schools whenever and wherever they would like, and all competing with one another for survival.  And underneath those 14 are more than 50 individual charter operators and local education agencies.”

The House proposal demands no additional requirements for operators to demonstrate past academic success, to place schools in underserved areas, or to create a transportation system. The school you attend today may be gone tomorrow and, so far, the Legislature is sticking by its guns: Choice over stability; independent and remote operators over local control.

What if it were my child?

In every other school district in the state, if parents are so aggrieved by school conditions that they choose to go to the school board to express their concerns, there is a local meeting of locally elected board members at least once a month, usually more. Not so in Detroit.

The local board has no control. The emergency manager answers to the governor. Charter school boards are appointed by authorizers, two located more than 200 miles from the city and one, 400 miles away.

Does this resemble the school system you attended? Is it what you’d want for your child? If not, I’d suggest you ask your legislators to remember their commitment to local control and fix this problem, now. Ask they do it in a way that ensures other districts do not fall into the same state of disrepair, with no local representation. Ask them…

What if it were your child?

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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