Last November, the Detroit Public School District estimated it would suffer a $55 million budget shortfall for the 2003/2004 school year. They bumped the figure up to $78 million in March, and then it hit a whopping $250 million last month.

To balance this suddenly ballooning deficit, as required by law, 3,200 district employees will be laid off this summer.

How did it come to this?

Most of the media have tried to answer that question by looking through a microscope, identifying specific mistakes made by the current crop of public school administrators. They point out that district officials grossly overestimated enrollment, and that fewer kids have meant less revenue. They report that some school principals failed to cut positions in their schools, as they had been told to do, causing higher-than expected personnel expenses.

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But let’s put away the microscope for a minute and grab a wide angle lens.

Back in 1996/97, Detroit Public Schools enrolled 183,447 students, and employed 22,077 staff. Enrollment has fallen every year since, averaging 147,808 during the 2003/04 school year. Employment in the District has not fallen. It has risen to 23,800. So the Detroit Public School system is now employing 1,723 more people to teach an estimated 35,000 fewer children.

That can get kind of expensive.

After adjusting for inflation, the District’s total spending is only fractionally higher today than it was back in 1996/97 ($1.63 billion now versus $1.62 billion then, in 2004 dollars), but this represents a startling increase per pupil. The District spent $8,830 on each student in 1996/97, but more than $11,000 in 2003/2004.

Think about it. For that amount of money, a few neighbors could get together and hire a full-time tutor for 6 children at an annual salary of over $66,000. Talk about small class size and individualized attention.

None of the figures cited above is government classified. You don’t have to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act to access them. And yet, somehow, this obvious and well established pattern of fiscal suicide seems to have taken not only the District’s management but also its largest employees’ union by surprise.

Union president Janna Garrison told the press: "I don't have any explanation of how all of a sudden we got to this point…. I'm at a loss for words."

All of a sudden, after seven consecutive years of falling enrollment, enrollment… fell again.

All of a sudden, after years of employing more and more people to teach fewer and fewer kids… the District has more employees than its per-pupil funding can pay for.

It might seem funny if it weren’t for the fact that 3,200 men and women are now, all of a sudden, getting pink slips. They aren’t laughing. Their families aren’t laughing.

Given that Detroit Public Schools have made such dismal staffing decisions in the face of an obvious and undeniable enrollment decline, is it any wonder that they can’t handle the far more complex task of teaching children?

On every measure (MEAP scores, SAT scores, ACT scores, graduation rates…) , looking at every possible subgroup of the student population (white, black, rich, poor…), Detroit public school students are behind the averages for Wayne County and for Michigan as a whole. In most cases, way behind.

Only 28.8% of low-income students in Detroit pass the MEAP, compared to 44.9 percent in the state as a whole. Only 30% of African-Americans in Detroit have passing MEAP scores, compared to 37.8% statewide.

The big education question to be put before voters in November is whether or not Detroit should return to an elected school board instead of the current appointed one.

That is the wrong question.

The Detroit Public School system isn’t squandering your $11,000 per-pupil in tax dollars because of how school board members are chosen or not chosen. It’s doing so for the same reason that former president Bill Clinton recently gave for his sexual dalliances: "Because it can."

It can because it has a monopoly on the provision of public education.

It is a monopoly guaranteed by law and defended by the unions and bureaucrats who oppose nearly every improvement attempted by reform-minded district CEO Kenneth Burnley.

If you’re fed up with your local public school, what choice do you have? A charter school? They currently serve only an eighth of the total student population in Detroit. No matter how the School Board of Detroit is selected it isn’t likely to call for a proliferation of new competitors to its own schools. Move out of the district? Not so easy if you don’t have the money or job prospects.

Detroit families will enjoy better-managed, more academically effective schools when every family has real educational choice, when all schools have to compete with one another for the opportunity to serve their kids, when good schools have a real financial incentive to expand and no clumsy hurdles in their way, and when ineffective and mismanaged schools close down or are bought out by their competitors.

When, in other words, you have an education market with financial assistance to ensure universal access.

Lots of folks like to gripe about Microsoft because the courts say it has a monopoly. But nobody is forced to buy Microsoft products. It actually has competitors. And if you choose one of those competing products, guess what? You don’t have to pay Microsoft a dime.

I wonder when we’ll be able to say the same thing about our public schools?


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based research and educational institute. He is the author of books, monographs, and studies, including Market Education: The Unknown History; With Clear Eyes, Sincere Hearts and Open Minds: A Second Look at Public Education in America; and Forging Consensus.