The Detroit Public Schools is facing a $200 million dollar budget deficit — precisely the amount of money at which the Detroit Federation of Teachers thumbed its collective nose just a year ago when the union juggernaut steamrolled philanthropist Robert Thompson’s offer to spend $200 million of his own money to build 15 charter high schools in Detroit.
The dollar amount is just a coincidence, of course, but here’s something that isn’t: Despite five years of extreme state intervention in Detroit’s school system, including a reconstitution of the district’s entire management structure, the school district’s leadership says the system is about to implode.
The question is, What should Michigan do about it?
Detroit Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Burnley has proposed, in part, a bond issue that would bypass voters. This is an insidious error, akin to a marriage in which one partner earns the money and the other independently uses a credit card to bankrupt them.
State Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema is planning to ask for a financial review before considering any such proposal, according to The Detroit News. This seems reasonable enough. After all, if the federal government can knock the wind out of the private sector with auditing laws like Sarbanes-Oxley, shouldn’t government schools have to submit to an equal level of rigor? Especially when the crux of their solution is to tap taxpayers for a $200 million loan?
Yet neither Burnley’s proposal nor Sikkema’s wait-and-see approach are what is needed.
What is needed instead is a simple recognition by legislators: The system is broken, and more money isn’t going to fix it — not $200 million now, not $2 billion a decade from now.
To understand this, one need only read about the Kansas City, Missouri, School District, where huge sums were tried and found wanting. By edict of a federal judge who forced the state to supply almost unlimited sums, the school district spent nearly $2 billion dollars in 12 years. According to Paul Ciotti, author of a 1998 analysis by the Cato Institute, the school district purchased white elephants like an "Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room" and "a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capabilities," but little else: "The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration."
More money isn’t going to work in Detroit, either.
To solve the problem, policymakers should be asking themselves, What is the root cause? The Detroit News hinted at it with this statement: "Enrollment has dropped 20 percent in the last five years as parents fled the city or sent their children to charter or other alternative schools."
Some people hear this and say, It’s the charter schools’ fault. If the charters didn’t exist, they figure, those kids would still be in Detroit Public Schools.
But we wouldn’t shut down FedEx because fewer people are using the U.S. Post Office. And this "solution" still doesn’t get to the nub: Twenty percent of the school district’s previous student population left the schools. This is roughly equal to 35,000 kids — an astonishing number. It indicates that the problem is not money.
I could wheel out reams of data on Detroit’s poor student performance on state and federal tests; schools failing to make adequate yearly progress; the black-white achievement gap; substandard graduation rates among minorities; and inadequate skills even among many graduates. But sadly, it’s all been written about before.
Moreover, parents don’t need truckloads of data to know that their own children aren’t learning. Given even the slimmest opportunity to choose, they will move their children to other schools.
That’s why Detroit Public Schools is losing students.
Considering the certainty that parents are going to continue looking for better options, it’s time for the state to stop thinking "bailout" and start thinking of new options. The $1.63 billion dollars per year that DPS spends is not an entitlement or a jobs program, despite the fact that it employs over 22,000 people. Rather, the system was created to give students opportunities. Tragically, it has failed for decades in this fundamental mission.
This is reason enough to end the district’s monopoly on primary and secondary education in Detroit. The Legislature could begin by allowing charter schools unlimited access to the city. State lawmakers could also initiate, for voter approval, an amendment to the Michigan Constitution to allow parents, friends, neighbors and even companies to get a tax credit if they contribute to scholarship funds that help children go to the schools of their choice, public or private.
The Detroit teachers union can raise all the ballyhoo it wants against school choice. In the end, unless the union plans to stop the mass exodus from Detroit Public Schools by putting a wall around the city, parents will still find ways to choose better schools for their children.
Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.