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What can be done to keep Detroit Public Schools from sinking further? 

Righting the ship


Part Two of two. Click here for Part One of Curt Guyette's two-part series on Detroit Public Schools.


After six years of state control, this much is beyond debate:

Emergency management has neither fixed the finances of Detroit Public Schools nor provided even an adequate education to most Detroit students.

The state's takeover of the district, and the appointment of four different managers during those six years, has been like shuffling captains on the Titanic after the iceberg has been hit. Unless the hole gets plugged, the ship is going down no matter who is at the helm.

In the case of DPS, the district's perpetual annual deficits (pegged at nearly $170 million for the current fiscal year) and its long-term debt (which is at more than $2.1 billion as of last June) aren't just an issue of management. Unless severe structural problems are resolved, the district will continue sinking.

Wayne State University economist and law school professor Peter Hammer focused on the crisis facing DPS in a paper published in The Journal of Law in Society.

"The important point is that the dynamics of the problem are structural and largely transcend issues of governance," wrote Hammer in a paper titled "The Fate of the Detroit Public Schools: Governance, Finance and Competition."

Those structural problems include the way education is funded in Michigan, which has been largely based on a system of per-pupil funding from the state since the Passage of Proposal A in 1994, and the introduction of increased competition to traditional public schools in the form of charter schools and schools of choice.

But it's far more complicated than that.

"Whatever the system of governance and finance, Detroit schools would still face the legacies of deindustrialization, discrimination and regional segregation that continue to plague southeast Michigan," Hammer explained. "These challenges are real and are not going away anytime soon.

"That said, the Detroit Public Schools are not just facing serious endemic challenges, they are facing a real emergency and not of the type that the state emergency manager law is well positioned to recognize, let alone properly address. There is a financial crisis, but the crisis is structural in nature, brought about by flaws in the state financing formula and exacerbated by state policies encouraging greater competition and school choice.

"The emergency manager is asked to adopt the myopic focus of eliminating an operating deficit in an era of falling revenues and mounting legacy debt. To do this, the emergency manager must relentlessly cut costs even faster than revenues continue to fall. There is nothing in the emergency manager law to address the structural causes of the financial crisis or to bring to bear additional resources that might actually improve the quality of education that DPS students can receive.

"If the state simply intended, sub rosa, to legislate the elimination of traditional public schools in Detroit, it could hardly think of a more effective vehicle to accomplish that objective."

The question now is, what's next?

Coalition with a mission

Last December the Skillman Foundation announced the formation of a new coalition designed to address the education crisis in Detroit.

"The Coalition is made up of a diverse cross-section of leaders representing Detroit's education, civic, philanthropic, business, religious, and community sectors," according to a press release announcing the group's formation.

The coalition is led by five co-chairs: Skillman Foundation President & CEO Tonya Allen; Rev. Wendell Anthony, Fellowship Chapel and president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP; David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan/AFL-CIO; John Rakolta Jr., CEO of Walbridge; and Angela Reyes, executive director of Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation.

They, along with a 31-member steering committee, as well as a larger group of community stakeholders, are on what the foundation described as an "urgent course to make recommendations for large-scale shifts in Detroit's broken education landscape."

Inherent in that message is recognition of a bitter irony.

The so-called reforms imposed on Detroit by the state badly fragmented the district, contributing to its long and precipitous decline.

But, as pointed out by coalition co-chair and union leader David Hecker, the past can't be undone.

"We have to deal with the reality that's now facing us," Hecker said.

It is a grim reality.

Within the city, there are now about 100 charter schools and the Education Achievement Authority — which took over 15 of Detroit's lowest performing schools in 2012 — competing with DPS for the same dwindling pool of students and resources. Despite the long-held claims that free-market principles and the law of supply and demand would force DPS to either drastically improve or perish as it gave way to those doing a superior job, the reality is that the vast majority of Detroit's students are facing failure wherever they turn in the city.

In terms of charter schools, a yearlong investigation published last year by the Detroit Free Press found that they weren't getting the job done:

"A Free Press analysis of elementary and middle-school test score data found that the proficiency rate for charter schools in the city — and those in surrounding suburbs that educate a large percentage of Detroit students — is 44% in reading, 18% in math.

"That almost mirrors Detroit Public Schools, where reading proficiency is 40%, math 14%. Statewide, reading proficiency is 68%, math 41%."

That's the case despite the fact that charters have a distinct financial edge over DPS, which is burdened by massive debt and teacher pension obligations that charters don't have to shoulder.

As for the EAA, which directly runs 12 former DPS schools and oversees three independently run charters, the promise of improvement has yet to be fulfilled.

In a recent appearance on the local news program Flashpoint, EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme admitted that, "Three years into this, achievement hasn't improved." To address that lack of achievement, Conforme last month announced an overhaul of how the district operates, with the intent to give more leeway to individual schools in deciding how to improve academics.

In reaction to these failures, the Skillman-led coalition, formally titled the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, has been exploring the possibility of recommending the creation of something called a "portfolio district" as a possible way to help repair the fractures "reform" has created.

Helen Moore, a longtime public education advocate and member of the grassroots group Keep the Vote/No Takeover, is opposed to the coalition, saying it's yet another attempt to bamboozle the public."

"It's a denial of justice for our people," says Moore. "It is a denial of democracy. And the problem will not be remedied until democracy is fully restored, power is returned to the elected board, and all these different parts are put back together, because when everyone is competing for these children, you are failing."

Along with continuing to fight the state takeover in court, Moore and others in the same camp are looking outside Michigan for help, working with activists in other states as part of a group called the Journey for Justice Alliance in advocating for reform.

"Journey for Justice (J4J) is an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 21 cities across the country: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Eupora, MS, Hartford, Los Angeles, Newark, Patterson, Camden, Jersey City and Elizabeth NJ, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Wichita," according to the group's website. "All of our members are base-building organizations pushing back and demanding community-driven alternatives to the privatization of and dismantling of public schools systems."

Policy and politics

"The portfolio district model rests on a metaphor in which district managers are expected to monitor school performance much like investors manage assets in an investment portfolio," according to a white paper written last year by Michigan State University's Mary L. Mason and David Arsen. "The portfolio may consist of a diverse mix of schools (for-profit and nonprofit contract schools, charter schools, or autonomous traditional district schools). District managers are expected to intervene regularly to weed out below-average performing schools and to actively recruit new providers and then hold them accountable for student performance."

Looking ahead, the report by Mason and Arsen pointed out that important questions still need to be addressed:

"The specific character of a portfolio district is not predetermined, but turns rather on countless features of policy design and implementation. Those choices will determine whether any new educational regime better serves the interests of so many Detroit families who have long endured poverty, segregation, and discrimination.

"How will the new regime assure that Detroit families, like their counterparts in more affluent Michigan communities, can lodge their preferences regarding their neighborhood schools as citizens, not just consumers? How will it promote the professionalism of teaching in Detroit schools, such that it becomes an attractive career choice for talented and committed teachers? How will it make the most of an historic opportunity to promote racial and social class integration in the schools of the nation's most segregated city?"

Whatever recommendations the coalition makes, it will be up to the governor and the Legislature to decide what changes are actually made. At this point, returning power to the democratically elected board — something that was supposed to be a goal of emergency management once the financial ship had been stabilized — doesn't appear to be even a remote possibility.

Detroit's elected school board, which has steadfastly fought emergency management, recently voted unanimously to oppose the establishment of a portfolio system. In their view, the board should determine how Detroit's public schools are run. That's what they were elected to do.

But, stripped of all power by the governor's appointees, the board's vote has no actual effect. It can't even get the same internal financial reports the emergency manager is freely turning over to the coalition, School Board member Lamar Lemmons said at a recent meeting.

A former state legislator, Lemmons chose to participate in the coalition, sitting on its governance committee — despite what he said are deep concerns about how the coalition is structured.

"There is a lot of conflict of interest," he says, noting that a number of the nonprofit organizations participating in the effort receive funding from the Skillman Foundation.

There are also business interests, including the construction company Walbridge. The company led a joint venture that contracted with the district to build seven new schools and renovate eight others, using $505 million in bond money approved by Detroit voters in 2009.

Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr. says that's the only contract his 100-year old privately held company has ever had with DPS, that the job was obtained through a bidding process, and that there are no plans to build yet more schools.

In short, he sees no conflict. If there was, he says, he'd recuse himself.

What he does see, said Rakolta, is a lot of diverse opinion and vigorous debate among coalition members.

That perspective is echoed by other coalition members interviewed for this article, including union leader Hecker and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a former middle-school science teacher in Detroit elected to the state House last year.

Gay-Dagnogo says she had her doubts at first, but has been encouraged by what she described as "a real openness to look at viable solutions, not just rubber-stamping."

Reform or fail

Up to this point, most of the reporting around the coalition's work has focused on governance. Will the mayor be involved in running the district, or in choosing those who will?

Last week, Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, citing two confidential sources, reported that the coalition is weighing two scenarios: one for a fully appointed board and the other for a hybrid of elected and appointed members.

Lemmons says that no consensus has been reached by coalition members regarding how the district should be governed. A proposal is expected to be provided to the mayor, governor and state Legislature by the end of this month.

It's important to point out that, in terms of governance, some of what's being discussed has already been tried and rejected. In 1999, as a result of action taken by the state Legislature and Gov. John Engler, the elected school board was removed from power and replaced by a seven-person board, with six members appointed by then-Mayor Dennis Archer and the state superintendent of public education serving as the seventh member.

Five years later, after the appointed board took a $100 million surplus and turned it into a $200 million deficit, Detroiters overwhelming voted to have an elected board put back in charge of running the district.

Throughout all these changes, underlying issues that have pulling the district down were not addressed.

For her part, Skillman leader Allen says that while governance is a critical issue, it's also vital that the coalition look at more than that and come up with ways to address many of the structural issues plaguing the district.

"I think it is both issues," says Allen. "We have managerial problems, and we have structural problems."

The coalition is working on a number of proposals intended to address those issues, from the disproportionate burden that educating special needs students places on the district to how best to deal with the debt that is siphoning away funds that would otherwise be going into the classroom.

The clear lesson from the past two decades is that changing the way Detroit Public Schools is managed without addressing the profound problems facing the district is an effort that's doomed to fail.

As Peter Hammer makes clear:

"An accurate diagnosis of the problem is essential for effective policy reform. DPS's core problems are structural and financial in nature, not issues of governance."


Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan.
His work
is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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