Chapter 4 - A Focus on Detroit


Education in Detroit is in crisis. Most people familiar with the city would assume without much deliberation that such an assessment applies to public education and would readily agree. What is typically not understood, and certainly under-appreciated, is the fact that thousands of Detroit children are receiving surprisingly good educations in more than 100 little "oases of excellence" all over the city.

We speak here not of such well-known places as Cass Tech, Renaissance or M. L. King High Schools which have distinguished themselves from the typical public schools in Detroit, but rather of the non-public schools in the city. They don't make the headlines much, but perhaps they should. As a rule, they are providing children with access to quality education in safe environments at considerably less cost than their public counterparts.

This is not to suggest that private or parochial education in Detroit is thriving. In fact, a common concern among those most intimately involved is that it is in trouble too – often struggling for the funds it needs and always starved of the attention it deserves. In any event, non-public education is not endangered by poor performance; that's the one "luxury" it can least afford.

In a 1986 study for the Chicago-based Heartland Institute entitled "Access to Quality: Private Schools in Chicago's Inner City," Dr. Joan Davis Ratteray wrote, "Inner-city parents all across America are breaking away from large government mo­nopolies in education." Detroit is no exception. What too often is missing is a willingness on the part of the educational and business communities in Detroit to take notice and learn from the experiences of the non-public schools.

The most potent incentive for non-public schools to succeed is the fact that they can fail – that is, go out of business for lack of patrons. No one is required to pay their bills regardless of what happens in their classrooms. They have customers, not captives.

When it comes to non-public education, parents are fully vested with the power of choice. Indeed, when parents choose to send their children to private schools, they usually are choosing to pay twice for education – in tuition at the private school and in taxes for the public system they are attempting to escape. It's not enough for a non-public school to provide a package that's no better – or even slightly better – than the neighborhood public schools it competes with; it must offer a total package which parents regard as much better.

In an effort to catch a glimpse of what is happening in Detroit's 107 non-public schools, we interviewed scores of principals, teachers, parents and students. We surveyed literature and reports they provided. We consulted with experts in education from both private and public sectors. We personally visited more than one-third of the city's non-public schools.

Unlike public school systems, no central office compiles exhaustive data on private schools. Individual school policies on gathering and keeping information vary, and in the case of such matters as parental income, almost none of Detroit's non-public schools make any careful attempt to determine, let alone file, such data. Though this may appear as a hindrance to our study, we take pains to avoid assertions except those we feel are justified by what we have learned.

We hasten at this point to inform the reader that our limited focus prevents us in this study from examining another alternative to public schools, namely, home schooling. Some parents (we have no idea how many in Detroit) have resorted to this method of education for some of the same reasons other parents have chosen the extra expense of non-public schools. Research has been cascading forth recently which shows that home schooling is surprisingly good on the average, with home-schooled children doing considerably better on standardized tests than their public school counterparts. It may, for some parents in Detroit, represent a feasible and much-to-be-desired alternative to the public system they are confronted with.

This is not the most comprehensive report possible, but it may be the most comprehensive one to date. We firmly believe that the impressions we derived are warranted, but we sincerely hope this is only the first of many serious and more thorough examinations of the phenomenon of non-public education in the Motor City. As far as education is concerned, government is not the only game in town.


What do parents find attractive about the non-public schools they send their children to? What methods or policies form the underpinnings of the schools' success? What shortcomings do the schools have? These are just some of the questions we hope to answer as we look more closely at non-public education in Detroit.

Detroit's 107 non-public schools are notably diverse in character and methods.

Almost all are non-profit and in some way connected with a church or religious organization. Those with Catholic Church affiliation number 46. Lutheran schools number 16. Comprising the remainder are Baptist schools, Christian but non-denominational schools, Montessori schools, Muslim schools, a Krishna school, and a very small number of for-profit, non-sectarian schools.

Total enrollment of Detroit children in the city's non-public schools for 1990-91 was approximately 19,500, or about 10.5 percent of that for Detroit's 248 public schools. This does not include what we believe to be a substantial number of Detroit children attending non-public schools outside the city, in neighboring communities. Unfortunately, no one keeps thorough records that could reliably project a total figure but we do know, for example, that 82 percent of the 491 students enrolled in Grosse Pointe Park's St. Clare of Montefalco (in 1990) came from the city of Detroit.

Tuition at the church-affiliated schools, for the 1990-91 academic year, ranged from a low of $725 to a high of about $2,500. Average charges were less in the lower grades. Average tuition at the church-affiliated high schools was approximately $1,700. Catholic schools spend about $1,300 per pupil on average, which represents less than a third of what Detroit's public schools spend per pupil. (The situation is similar to that in many major American cities. In New York, for instance, the Catholic schools spend $1,200 per pupil compared to $7,107 for that city's public schools, according to the May 4, 1991 New York Times.)

At Detroit's very few non-sectarian private schools, tuition is much higher, starting at a little under $4,000.

Almost all the non-public schools have payment plans which allow parents (or whoever is paying tuition) to pay in installments: semi-annually, quarterly, or even monthly. Such factors as low teacher salaries, little administrative overhead, fundraising activities and church subsidies help keep tuition down – a "must" if the schools are not to lose customers to their "free" public counterparts – but rarely allow for scholarship assistance for needy students.

The lack of scholarship monies means that the schools do not bother to attempt to determine parental incomes. Such data, we feel, would likely verify what one senses when visiting the schools and the neighboring areas they serve, namely, that the overwhelming share of their clientele are from low-income, often single-parent households. Nearly every principal we talked to advised us, based frequently on intimate, personal knowledge of the families, that Detroit's non-public, church­affiliated schools are serving thousands of very poor families who struggle and sacrifice every day to scrape together tuition money. We feel this story of love and heroic commitment is one of Detroit's beautiful but under-reported secrets.

Many people are under the impression that Catholic schools are for Catholic children, Lutheran schools are for Lutheran children, and so on. The believe that parents send their children to religious schools because they want the family's faith taught in the classroom. In the wealthier suburbs, where three-quarters or more of the students enrolled in religious schools do indeed come from families who practice the same faith as the schools, that would seem to be the case. But in Detroit, the numbers tell a different story. In the Catholic and Lutheran schools, the numbers of students who are not of the same faith as the school equals or exceeds 80 percent of the student body.

That's right: at least 80 percent of children in Catholic schools in Detroit are not Catholic. At least 80 percent of children in Lutheran schools in the city are not Lutheran. Upon examination, the reasons parents are sending their children to these schools becomes apparent: they want their children to get a good education in a safe environment where values of right and wrong are strongly emphasized. Those parents do not feel their children will get these things in the public schools.

Incidentally, we did notice one interesting difference between the Catholic and Lutheran schools beyond the obvious ones. It's a difference which may give one an edge over the other in the struggle to survive in an inhospitable environment with a shrinking population base. Lutherans seem more able to get parents involved than the Catholics (in fundraising, parent/teacher meetings, etc.) and perhaps as one result, Lutheran administrators are notably more optimistic about the future of private education in Detroit than are Catholic administrators.

Racial strife in Detroit non-public schools is almost non-existent, even though teaching and administrative staff are overwhelmingly white and the student population is overwhelmingly (often 90 percent and higher) black. A values-oriented, Christian emphasis is one reason for that. Another reason is economic in nature: to in any way inject racism or allow it to fester could be financially devastating; where survival depends upon earning the public's voluntary favor, racism is stupid and costly.

"Values" is a word that has cropped up here more than once already, and deservedly so. It seems that the schools we surveyed are not only oases of academic performance, they are oases of values as well. Students in these schools come from many of Detroit's most crime-ridden and drug-infested neighborhoods, yet it is difficult for us to imagine that they could ever end up in anywhere near the trouble that their neighborhood peers in public schools do. We base this not on any hard and fast statistics (collecting them would make a fascinating and, we think, most revealing study for someone), but on impressions from our visits and discussions.

Many teachers in private schools who once taught in Detroit's public schools will cite the presence of values in private school curricula as a major reason for their willingness to teach there at perhaps half the pay they formerly earned. Discipline, manners, respect for life and property are ingrained into the children by the teachers and the administrators, with the full backing of the parents. One teacher told us that she could impart values "without the ACLU breathing down my neck telling me that's religion." She said that what was needed in Detroit, habitually one of the two or three most crime-ridden cities in America, was "a heavy dose of values." We found that hard to argue with.

Writing in The New Republic (May 13, 1991), Abigail Thernstrom cited values as the telling virtue of church-affiliated schools. Referring in particular to Catholic schools, she argued that the demands upon the students "extend to their relations with others and their spiritual growth. The moral seriousness of these schools stemming from their religious commitment makes them willing to dwell on such values as respect, self-respect, and responsibility – topics they touch upon in every class .... Of course they teach religion, but they don't pressure non-Catholics to convert. Indeed, students belonging to Western and non-Western faiths share their religious life. `They don't convert, but they do come out thinking about what's right and wrong,"' according to a New York City official.

Thernstrom's article, incidentally, mentioned another success of Catholic schools which we feel is in evidence in Detroit. The so-called "disadvantaged" student, she says, is typically "not disadvantaged in a Catholic school environment. Single-parent black or Hispanic students will learn more math and acquire better verbal skills in a Catholic school than they will in either public or (non-Catholic) private schools. The Catholic schools do what the public schools are supposed to do: equalize educational opportunity. They greatly narrow the gap in performance between the haves and the have-nots."

A March 28,1991 page-one story in The Wall Street Journal by Gary Putka was full of praise for Catholic schools in general. For example: "Based on the latest available comparisons, students in Catholic school beat public students by an average of 4.5% in mathematics, 4.8% in science, and 12.5% in reading in the three grade levels of the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress test," while "Catholic high school sophomores are four times less likely to drop out than their public school counterparts," and are "much more likely to go on to college."

Not surprisingly, we found in our visits strong verification of much of what Brookings Institution scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe found in their studies. Because these non-public schools must attract, not coerce, customers, they aim to please. They have found that an effective school is one that thinks and acts like a team. Teachers and administrators work together or they part company, quickly. The schools usually have a mission which is understood and carried out by everyone. Principals commonly are part-time teachers too, or at least very few became principals because they wanted to "get out of the classroom." Teachers feel they really are making a difference, that their time is not wasted following the directives of some distant board or bureaucrat, that their talents are respected and their abilities valued; in short, they feel "empowered."

All that helps explain a lot of things, not the least of which is the extraordinarily low dropout rate in non-public schools. Whereas that rate hovers around 40 percent year after year in the public schools, our numbers suggest a rate of less than 5 percent for the non-public schools.

The findings of Chubb and Moe regarding bureaucracy seem to be borne out in Detroit as well. The central administrative bureaucracy of the city's public schools numbers in excess of 6,800, while pupils in the classroom number more than 167,000. The central administrative bureaucracy of the educational division of the archdiocese of Detroit has 20 employees, while students enrolled in the schools it oversees in three counties number about 60,000.

Beyond those revealing statistics, it's even more shocking to learn that a high number of the administrators in the public schools (and teachers as well) frequently have a very high absentee rate. Citing the school district's monthly Report on Educational Quality for February 1990, an editorial in The Detroit News (April 23, 1990, p. 6A) revealed that "39 percent of the central administrative staff and 35 percent of teachers had unsatisfactory attendance during the period. That means they were present in tile classroom 84 percent of the time or less .... Employers in the private sector expect their employees to maintain a minimum 95 percent attendance rate...." Indeed, many a non-public school would drive its costs up, its performance down, and its customers away long before its employee attendance rate plunged to such levels.

Low administrative overhead is a cardinal rule at the non-public schools. The cost per pupil at Holy Redeemer Elementary, as a typical example of Catholic schools, for instance, was $1,400 last year. The lowest cost public school in the state of Michigan spends approximately $2,800 per pupil. The patronage of private schools is entirely voluntary, one of the many reasons they cannot afford the "luxury" of massive bureaucracies and unionized employees.

The National Center for Education Statistics has shown that almost half of all money spent in public schools goes for expenses other than those in the classroom; only 58.5 percent of their budgets in 1988-89 went directly to teacher salaries, benefits and classroom supplies. The rest went for food services, interscholastic athletics, maintenance, and a myriad of other non-instructional "support services." All indications are that a much higher percentage of expenditures go for direct instructional purposes in non-public schools, and that Detroit is probably quite representative of the national picture.

Yet another reason for the disparity in costs between public and non-public schools is student occupancy. In our visits to the non-public schools in Detroit, we saw little wasted space and few, if any, idle employees. Each school and its student population seemed to make for a close fit. That's probably because as the city's population has declined, non-public schools have had to downsize accordingly to survive the financial pressures.

Detroit's public schools, on the other hand, have been reluctant to do the same – instead, often hanging on for political reasons to costly staffed facilities with very low student occupancy. As recently as the 1989-90 school year, for example, 55 percent of Detroit's public schools were less than 75 percent full (at least two were less than 30 percent full), prompting a belated proposal from the Superintendent to close 16. An outside consultant who studied the district's finances said it would make more sense to close as many as 100!

Numbers which tell another major story come from a 1985 study done by Dennis P. Doyle and Terry W. Hartle of the American Enterprise Institute. They found that 35 percent of "central city" Detroit's public school teachers sent their children to private schools, which was considerably higher than that for the general population. In Michigan as a whole, 18 percent of public school teachers sent their children to private schools while just 12 percent of the general population did.

Non-public schools have plenty of shortcomings, most of which stem from their meager financial resources. Teacher salaries are half to two-thirds those in the public schools. Average starting salary, for instance, is approximately $13,000, compared to $24,000 in the public schools. Interestingly, The Detroit News (May 20, 1991, p. 6A) pointed out that Michigan's public school teachers are very well paid: average pay for the 1990-91 school year was $37,682, or 205.4 percent of the state's per capita income of $18,346. Put another way, says The News, Michigan's average public school teacher salary is 14 percent higher than the national average and the eighth highest in the country, whereas state per capita income is actually below the national average.

The private schools in Detroit are frequently not equipped to handle those with learning disabilities. Parental involvement, though generally more prevalent than exists in public schools, is still shamefully scarce. There are almost no black male teachers as role models in the classroom (a shortcoming shared by the public schools). Tight budgets have worked against the introduction of the latest comput­ers and teaching aids in many of the schools.

Some people say another drawback of non-public schools is that they generally offer fewer courses, less vocational training, and not as many extra-curricular activities as the public schools do. We are inclined to side with those researchers who argue that "variety" may actually be retarding educational progress in the public schools by diluting the intake of what's really important. By putting more attention on the "basics" with fewer distractions or frills, non-public schools may be taking their students further down the path to success in later life. Too often, all those "extras" in public schools simply mean, as John Witte of the University of Wisconsin at Madison puts it, "Kids are able to escape taking difficult courses in public schools."

The preponderance of Detroit's non-public school administrators believe that their brand of education in Detroit is in trouble. A generally somber attitude prevails. Many of the non-public school administrators and teachers feel unnoticed and under-appreciated, ignored by an "establishment" that regards public education as a sacred cow that can be criticized but never opened to genuine choice and competition on a level playing field with their non-public counterparts.

At each private school we visited, we asked if anyone from the public schools, the Michigan Education Association, or the Department of Education had ever come by to learn firsthand of the school's progress, its successes, whatever it was doing right. That sort of thing was almost unheard of; officials from just two schools told us they could recall such a visit. Does the "education establishment" in Detroit and Michigan at large think it has nothing to learn from what is happening in non-public schools? We strongly believe in the need for regular contact, a serious dialogue, between public and non-public schools.

The appendix portion of this book consists of very brief descriptions of some of the schools we've been talking about here. They are not by any means thorough. Qualities cited in one school may in fact be present in most or all of the rest; we have written simply a few of the attributes that stood out in our minds as we looked at each school one at a time. Taken as a whole, the sampling will suit our purpose if it does little more than whet the reader's appetite to further explore Detroit's non-public schools.

In any event, the more we learned about these institutions, the more we became convinced that not only do they deserve encouragement, but more of Detroit's children ought to have a chance to have access to them. Why wouldn't it be helpful to the state of education and society, we asked ourselves, if more parents who are unhappy with the public schools could avail themselves and their children of the opportunities the other schools have to offer? We could only conclude that such a development would indeed be a very positive one.

Detroit is already inching in this direction, fortunately. Roman Catholic Archbishop Adam Maida's plan to open two new nondenominational schools in the fall of 1991 is evidence of that. Maida's formula will combine a nondenominational framework with many of the features found commonly in Catholic schools and cited here in some detail. In the first year, 400 Detroit schoolchildren will participate – 400 who otherwise would become statistics in the public system. Echoing the favorable response the archbishop has generated around the city, The Detroit Free Press editorialized (May 19, 1991, p. 2F), "If the formula proves successful, the dominant, all-too-slowly reforming public school system may find itself under more pressure to improve."

What Detroit (and Michigan) really needs, however, is choice that is much more far-reaching, choice that maximizes the ability of parents and teachers to make a positive difference in the education of children.

(EDITORS' NOTE: For brief descriptions of some of Detroit's non-public schools, see the Appendix.)