Left Behind

Recent news that the Detroit Public Schools are in a financial mess, compounded by buildings that are deteriorating and poorly maintained, is no surprise.


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Recent news that the Detroit Public Schools are in a financial mess, compounded by buildings that are deteriorating and poorly maintained, is no surprise. The school system has been experiencing self-inflicted duress since the 1970s.

Teacher sickouts in January, orchestrated by the Detroit Federation of Teachers to impel a bailout, brought the problems to the forefront once again. This is the same union that controlled the elected school board for decades before a series of state-appointed emergency managers took on the task of cleaning up $3.5 billion in debt, including $1.3 billion in legacy costs.

A key indicator is that parents vote with their feet. Since 2000, enrollment at DPS has fallen two-thirds, to around 48,000 students. Over the last decade, DPS has lost approximately 70,000 students, while charter schools in the city gained 23,000 students. Overall, 53 percent of the students in the city attend charter schools, up from 20 percent a decade ago.

According to a recent report from JPMorgan Chase and Co., more than 25 percent of the overall labor force in Detroit is unemployed. Just 13 percent of Detroit residents have earned a bachelor’s degree. It’s no surprise, then, that many residents lack the necessary skills and education levels to qualify for the jobs that are available.

In large part, DPS has failed to provide every student with the necessary education and skill sets to attend a community college or a four-year university, let alone launch a business. All the tech incubation centers that have popped up in the city over the last five years aren’t going to solve the problem. 

Assigning blame for the mess isn’t difficult — politicians, elected school board members, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers largely put their individual needs ahead of students, and their combined failure is holding the city back. 

A recent lawsuit filed by the union to oust the state-appointed emergency manager because of the facility deficiencies is highly ironic, given the former school board and DFT are largely responsible for driving the district into the ground. And Mayor Mike Duggan’s politicization of the drama with a school inspection tour soon after the sickouts was a case of Johnny-come-lately.

To wit, in 1999, Wayne County (Duggan was deputy county executive at the time), the Detroit Regional Chamber, and attendees at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference sought to adopt individual public schools in the city. For a year or two, corporations worked with specific schools and provided funds to upgrade classrooms. But the effort faded away after DPS, the county, and the city changed leaders via appointments and elections.

The other factor driving falling enrollment at DPS is decreased population — the city is home to some 600,000 residents — along with a falling birth rate. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census, there were 10,055 births in the city in 2013. In other words, more school downsizing is needed (DPS currently operates 104 schools).

So what’s the solution? Break up DPS by converting every school into a charter school. The harsh reality is politicians, school board members, and the Detroit Federation of Teachers can’t be trusted to run an effective educational system that puts students first. 

Charter schools have long delivered superior results by working in highly effective, localized, and accountable teams (including parents) without monolithic meddling from politicians and unions. It’s the only way to make sure no child will be left behind.  

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