What is the Future for DPS?

A new plan to save Detroit Public Schools is to be introduced to the Michigan legislature before the end of the year. Governor Rick Snyder’s new proposal intends to tackle the $515 million debt accrued by the district as well as its low academic achievement. This plan would cost the state a total of $715 million over the course of 10 years.

“Detroit is making a tremendous comeback today and we want to see that continue … to sustain it for the long term we need to have successful education within the city of Detroit,” Snyder stated in a press conference back in October.

This new legislation would divide the current Detroit Public School district into an ‘old’ district which would exist only to pay off existing debt, and a ‘new’ district named the Detroit Community School District which would take over all operations. The ‘new’ district would be governed by the Detroit Education Commission which would be comprised of a seven-member board appointed by the governor and the Detroit mayor. The Detroit Education Commission would appoint a chief education officer who would have the power to “reward” high-performing schools and hold low-performing schools “accountable.” This officer would also have the power to decide which schools should be opened or closed within the city of Detroit. The new legislation would make Detroit “an empowerment zone,” which would encompass any districts in areas surrounding Detroit whose student bodies are made up of more than 50 percent Detroit residents, though the chief education officer would not have the power to close any of these schools. The plan allows for an all-elected board by 2021.

Opponents of Snyder’s plan have voiced concerns about the fact that the proposed Detroit Education Commission would be appointed rather than elected. The battle over local control of Detroit Public Schools has raged since 1999 when PA 10 was enacted which removed the elected school board replacing it with a state appointed board in an effort to raise academic achievement. After five years under state control and a battle with community members, DPS returned to an elected school board. The elected school board functioned until former Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as the emergency manager for DPS in 2009. The district has been under state control since then. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2005, 40 of the 54 districts under state control were made up mostly of racial or ethnic minority groups. The fact that Snyder’s legislation denies an elected board is a major obstacle for gathering public support in Detroit.

The struggling Detroit Public Schools have made national news for decades. There have been a number of experiments implemented to help fix the failing school district. The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who will be stepping down this month after holding the job since 2009, has called DPS “ground zero” for education reform. In 2010 the U.S. Department of Education awarded $44 million to Michigan for the development of charter schools, an innovation pushed by Duncan. According to a recent Detroit Metro Times article, 87 teams received public funds from Michigan to develop charter schools from 2010 to 2015. Over half never opened a charter and $3.5 million went to teams that never opened a school. During the same time, emergency managers in Detroit were closing public schools to cut costs. A $45 million charter program grant application for Michigan was rejected this year by the U.S. Department of Education due to the academic failure of existing charters.

A record number of schools were closed between 2010 and 2012. A total of 129 schools were on the closure list from 2010 to 2014. The state-appointed emergency manager Robert Bobb publicly stated that these schools were being closed to cut the budget deficit. Among the schools slated to be closed in 2011 were Catherine Ferguson Academy for pregnant teens and teen parents and Detroit Day School for the Deaf (DDSD). Both were important assets to their communities. Catherine Ferguson was a nationally acclaimed, award-winning school with a graduation rate of 90 percent. DDSD, founded in 1898, was one of the only schools in Michigan to serve deaf students specifically. Community members rallied to keep these schools open, but ultimately failed. DDSD closed in 2012 and Catherine Ferguson followed in 2014. In a 2011 interview with CNN, Bobb acknowledged that these mass school closings would drive more families out of the district, making the situation worse. In the same interview Bobb mentioned his plan to separate DPS into two separate entities by creating an “old” and a “new” school district - the same plan that Snyder is proposing now.

In 2011 Snyder attempted to resolve the academic and financial troubles of DPS by creating the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) with the full support of Duncan. EAA took over the 15 lowest-performing schools, breaking them off from DPS. Those schools have yet to show any significant academic progress and the U.S. Attorney’s office has initiated an investigation of EAA for an alleged kickback scheme. If Snyder’s new legislation passes, EAA as well as all charter schools will fall under the control of the Detroit Education Commission.

The educational reforms that have been implemented by the state in Detroit have yet to show any academic or financial success. With the investments currently being made into the revitalization of Detroit, the challenge of developing a successful school system has become more urgent. In order to attract more people to Detroit and maintain them as residents, making successful schools available is vital. Even if it passes the Michigan legislature, Snyder’s plan will be difficult to sell to the long-time residents of Detroit who have experienced the failures of many educational reforms implemented by gubernatorial appointees.