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

Righting the ship

Mar 4, 2015 at 1:00 am

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.