by Allie Gross
In March, following Detroit Public Schools' Emergency Manager Judge Steven Rhodes’ announcement that the district was so financially insolvent that it couldn’t pay teachers after April, the Michigan legislature approved a “rescue package” giving DPS $47.8 million to stay open through June.
Recent revelations that this money, which took dollars from the state’s tobacco settlement fund, will run out June 30, meaning those on 26 week pay schedules won't be paid for days already worked, have resulted in mass teacher “Lock-Outs.” Teachers took to the streets Monday and Tuesday demanding pay, a forensic audit of the district, and a say in the bigger legislative debates.
For over a year now the future of DPS has been a hot topic, and the ultimate plans rest heavily in proposals currently being debated by the house and the senate. In a bit we’re going to explain why both plans ultimately fail to stabilize the district, but first some background on the bills.
Both the senate and the house want to see the district divided up into an old district (responsible for paying off DPS's debts) and a new "Community School District" (responsible for educating students). The elected DPS board would run the old "debt" district, and a mayor/governor appointed board would run the new district. Under the senate plan an elected board would come to power in January 2017 — the house, legislation, however, would be a few more years. Oddly both plans ban currently elected board members from running. Under the both plans a Michigan Financial Review Commission would also go over all spending in the district — though the senate plan would allow the MFRC to leave earlier.
There are definitely common threads between the two plans, however, the house legislation, has been criticized by some DPS advocates for being a bit more punitive. It, for example, bans union negations, increases penalties for striking teachers and force the district to offer new employees 401k plans instead of pensions.
While this is a lot to think about, there is one big problem. No matter what legislation currently on the table is passed — House, Senate, a mixture of the two — DPS will remain in survival mode. Why? Because the legislation does very little to address the reasons why DPS got into this situation. Contrary to popular belief it is not mismanagement of funds that hurt the district as much as competition.
According to a recent Loveland Report, A School District in Crisis: Detroit Public Schools 1842-2015, the decline of DPS is very much tied to the boom in charter schools. Michigan's first charter schools opened in 1995 and by 2001 nearly 20,000 students were enrolled in charters in Detroit. By 2013 that number blossomed to 51,000 students. How this effected DPS can be seen in its numbers, which have seen a complete inverse. According to Loveland, "Between 2000 and 2015, 195 Detroit Public Schools closed as enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959, a decline of 71%." Today more students in the city attend charter schools than DPS schools.
Want to talk finances? According to Loveland, when DPS lost 9,000 students during the 2004-05 school year its surplus (yes, the district had a surplus before Emergency Management came back in 2009) was wiped out. By 2010 the district had a $600 million deficit — the deficit that has continued to balloon under Emergency Management and that Lansing is trying to grapple with today.
So how do enrollment/finances factor into the decline of DPS and issues that are not being addressed in the legislation? Two words: Proposal A.
Signed in 1993 by Governor John Engler — a few months before he approved charter schools in the state — Proposal A ensures that Michigan's schools have no local revenue base. Rather the state doles out funds, which then follow the students.
"The total funding level of schools will be determined by how many students they can retain or attract. The schools that deliver will succeed. The schools that don't will not. No longer will there be a monopoly on mediocrity in this state," Engler said in an October 1993 speech detailing the new funding model.
This has been devastating for DPS. As economist Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University, wrote in his 2011 paper The Fate of Detroit Public Schools: Governance, Finance and Competition, "Without question, the manner in which the school finance formula has been designed and implemented has amplified, not reduced, the trauma experienced by school districts with declining student populations. The most damaging aspect is the manner in which revenue is calculated in terms of average costs per student. This is not rocket science. The dynamics of the school problem are intuitive and steadily apparent."
He goes on to explain how the short-term costs of losing a student are in fact far bigger than the average cost of educating a student, "This can place a strain on local budgets because annual enrollment losses generally cannot be translated into immediate cost reduction that match the per-pupil funding loss."
While the senate legislation does includes an appointed Detroit Education Commission — responsible for assessing school openings and closings — it is has been criticized for its lack of local control, and more notably for not having a lot of teeth when it comes to reining in Detroit’s expansive portfolio system.
Much of its weakness is due to pressure from the charter sector, who cringe at the idea of any oversight that would hinder expansion.
“We are stunned and deeply saddened that the Michigan Senate would actually pass legislation that will result in fewer choices for Detroit parents and fewer educational opportunities for their children,” the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers wrote in a statement following the March 22 senate vote. “The Senate’s late addition of a Detroit Education Commission only resurrects and props up the old failed DPS system.”
Looking at the senate version of the DEC we see inklings of movement in the right direction, but t's still not quite there. As Fix the Mitten’s Nick Krieger explains the DEC would be in charge of “recommendations concerning the siting of all existing and proposed public schools within the city of Detroit—including both traditional public schools and charter schools." This is a good start in reining in poor options, but it also doesn’t do much when it comes to the fact that there are currently, quite simply, too many school options for the number of students in the city.
DPS can get a bunch of new bonds — because yes, the current legislation is just raising the ceiling in terms of the debt the district can take on — but as long as competition remains, the charter cap is off, and the district hemorrhages students it will be impossible for the district to ever truly stabilize. Some may argue that the district could close more schools and plan accordingly, but that is both traumatizing and ultimately costly. When the district closed a number of schools in 2008, it cost an additional $5,000,000.
As Loveland's report explained, "The closures, intended to save money, instead accelerated the decline of the school district. Each closing brought new protests, more parents removing their students from the district, and corresponding decreases in enrollment and funding."
Ultimately the legislation currently being debated leaves a lot of wiggle room for the district to end up right where it currently stands.
"There has to be some sort of radical change in how we do things," John Grover, the writer of the Loveland report tells Metro Times. "Lansing needs to decide if it wants to support public education in Detroit and either go all-in on DPS or make a full change to charter schools. Halfway measures, especially the one being discussed by Democrats and Republicans in the house are just temporary band-aids that kick the problem a few years further down the road."
Today's DPS crisis has been a moment in the making — as charter school researchers Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson wrote in their 2002 book What's Public About Charter Schools? "Engler has consistently supported reforms and efforts to promote choice and weaken the public school establishment." — and not realizing the historical context could be a major flaw of the legislature.
This post has been updated for clarity.