Even as it tries to revive itself after emerging from bankruptcy, Detroit faces a new crisis: it had to shut down many of its schools this week because of a sickout by teachers. The Detroit Federation of Teachers engineered the stoppage to pressure the Michigan legislature to agree to a $715 million aid package—without which, Detroit schools could run out of money by June. Michigan governor Rick Snyder wants to tie the aid to reforms that would bring new leadership to the troubled system, but some legislators are skeptical—with good reason. Snyder’s plan represents the fifth major reform agenda in the last 30 years for the Detroit Public Schools, which have been plagued by lousy leadership, a reform-resistant union, and a shortage of resources. Instead of a new plan for an old system, it’s time for Snyder and Michigan’s legislators to try something new.
Detroit’s public schools began their decline in the 1970s, as middle class residents fled the city. Even as the educational challenges increased, however, the system’s bureaucracy grew and grew. The board of education gained a reputation for financial mismanagement, fostering the impression that Detroit’s schools were being operated as a jobs program for adults, rather than to educate kids. By the late 1980s, the system ran a $180 million deficit, with a high school dropout rate of 50 percent and daily absenteeism averaging almost 20 percent of all students. The state brought in new management to stabilize the school system’s budget.
Education reforms followed. Some principals gained the freedom to select their own curriculum and staff. A bitter teachers’ strike undermined these reform efforts, shuttering schools for 26 days in September of 1992. As one school board member told the press: “[The strike] hit the reform effort upside the head like a two-by-four.”
The school district continued to drift. Controversy erupted when the board mishandled $1.5 billion in borrowed money meant to renovate schools. In 1997, then-governor John Engler proposed dissolving the board of education and turning the system over to a new group appointed by Mayor Dennis Archer. In September 1999, however, the teachers struck again, this time for nine days, in opposition to Archer’s reform proposals, which included a merit-pay system tied to classroom performance. Archer wound up dropping the idea.
Five years later, with the system showing little progress in educating students, frustrated Detroit residents voted for yet another reform plan, this time giving management of the schools back to an elected school board. That decision proved disastrous; the district’s finances quickly deteriorated. In September 2006, teachers went on strike yet again, this time over proposals to freeze pay and require greater health-care contributions. By 2009, the district faced a $259 million deficit, as the new board failed to cut costs to respond to a rapid enrollment decline. Governor Jennifer Granholm seized control of the Detroit school district in February 2009 and installed a financial manager to right the ship. An audit discovered hundreds of employees getting paid for no-show jobs and salaries allocated to dead people. Obama education secretary Arne Duncan called the district a “national disgrace.” The system’s graduation rate had plunged to 25 percent, and in 2009, its students registered the lowest scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests since the exams have been given.
The state of Michigan has maintained control since 2009, but progress has been halting, in part because of the school system’s institutional dysfunction. The recalcitrant teachers’ union has successfully resisted many reforms. And Detroit’s bankruptcy, which left the city short of resources, hasn’t helped. Residents keep fleeing the city, and students keep leaving the school system. Enrollment is down to just 49,000, from 168,000 in 2000. Facing these challenges, Snyder recently appointed the respected former bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes to try and right the system’s finances. But Rhodes isn’t an educator, and Detroit’s kids desperately need better schools. Snyder should recognize by now that they won’t get them from the sclerotic and inept public system.
There is another way. In recent years, dozens of charter schools have been established in Detroit, attracting tens of thousands of city students. In fact, charter schools now enroll more students in Detroit than the public school system does. Snyder should aim higher—toward the complete elimination of traditional public schools in favor of an all-charter model.
Too radical? Not for New Orleans, which took this path after Hurricane Katrina, transitioning from its 120-school public education system to one dominated by charter schools. To bring about the transformation, New Orleans turned to the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), a state body instituted to take over failing schools. After Katrina, the RSD became the public school operator in New Orleans. By 2007, some 60 percent of the city’s kids were enrolled in charters. New Orleans phased out its last government schools in 2015, effectively completing the changeover to an all-choice system. Graduation rates and test scores have rallied impressively. And it’s all happened in a network of schools that educates nearly as many children as Detroit does.
Not surprisingly, charter schools in Detroit have their opponents. In fact, some critics are using the latest crisis to undermine charters, proposing to limit their ability to expand. Michigan should be doing exactly the opposite—phasing out Detroit’s reform-impervious public school system, encouraging local groups and charter operators from around the country to open more schools, and giving all Detroit residents the opportunity to escape the toxic grip of the city’s disastrous educational system.
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