On Nov. 8, voters elected a new Detroit Public Schools board
of education which will take control of the district in January. One of the top
vote-getters was Rev. David Murray, who had been elected to the school board in
1998, just months before the state took over the district.
Six years have passed since Detroit’s last elected school
board was replaced by a mayorally-appointed one. Over that time, the test score
gap between Detroit and the rest of the state has diminished, but remains large,
and sought-after improvements in financial management have failed to
On March 26, 1999, then-Gov. John Engler signed Public Act 10
of 1999, paving the way for the Detroit school board takeover.
To gain perspective on what has and has not changed in the
district, it is helpful to recall the hotly debated issues that concerned
legislators about Detroit Public Schools.
According to its sponsors, the legislation was motivated by
desperation over the district’s poor academic performance, falling enrollment
and dire graduation rate – then estimated at just 30 percent. The legislative
debate over the measure that took place in 1999 was contentious.
Then-Sen. Bill Schuette, R-Midland, argued that Detroit
Public Schools students were "being short changed by a system that is failing,"
and that as a result "we need some fundamental change." His sentiments were
echoed by Sen. Mike Goschka, R-Brandt, who told his colleagues, "I … cannot
stand by knowing that these kids who need so much … are receiving so very
little." Observing that the city’s population had fallen from 2 million to 1
million, Sen. Leon Stille, R-Muskegon, suggested that "much of that decision (to
leave Detroit) was based upon the school system that (residents) had to send
their kids to."
Sen. Burton Leland, a Detroit Democrat, questioned the
legality of removing the publicly elected school board. "We have a million
people who live in Detroit," Leland said. "What gives this chamber and the
governor the right to remove an elected body? The present school board was
elected by the million people in Detroit and you’re going to throw them out?"
Others broke ranks. Sen. Virgil Smith, also a Detroit
Democrat and co-sponsor of Senate Bill 297, which became P.A. 10 of 1999, said,
"This is not an easy decision for me. Rarely do I step away from my Detroit
colleagues, but on this issue I have because it’s more important than any other
issue that I’ve seen in this body."
But the specific mechanism by which an appointed board would
solve the district’s problems was not fully articulated, and even many of the
bill’s backers admitted that it was a speculative endeavor.
"I’d be the first to admit that this is an experiment," Smith
Among the few specifics offered during the Senate’s debate
were the comments of Sen. Dan DeGrow, R-Port Huron, who argued that the
appointed board would bring greater professionalism and managerial expertise.
"I think immediately, you will see improvements in the
operational aspects and improvements in the board, knowing the role of the
board," he said
While Leland defended Detroit schools saying a budget deficit
had been turned into a surplus and graduation rates were up, DeGrow disagreed.
"It has been said by someone else that Detroit is not the
worst school district in the state, and I won’t dispute that," DeGrow said. "But
when you have a district with 180,000 students, and you look at the class of
1998 and see 71 percent missing in action, one has to wonder what happened."
Given the enormity of the apparent problems and the drama of
the intervention, one would expect striking improvements. As Detroit is set to
revert to an elected school board in January, a review of the policy’s impact
reveals missing information and mixed results.
Though the district’s low graduation rate was a chief
motivation for the takeover bill, no third-party study of graduation trends was
commissioned. As a result, only the district’s self-reported numbers are
available and these have proven erratic and unreliable, according to media
reports and scholars.
Prior to the takeover, DPS reported that only 30 percent of
its high school students graduated on time. The following year, the district
announced a figure of 88 percent. The Detroit Free Press reported that this jump
in the statistic was due to irregularities in the district’s figures, having to
do with the number of students being held back a grade. Students who are
required to repeat a grade are omitted from the graduation rate calculation,
thus raising the rate.
At one high school, Cooley, the district asserted that 711
freshmen had been held back, but its own records show the school as only
enrolling 612 freshmen. In other words, the district claimed that it was failing
more students than it was teaching.
State Department of Education spokesman Brad Wurfel
acknowledged that the district had reported 1,163 graduates who "could not
exist," but evinced no concern over the discrepancy.
"They have to submit the numbers," Wurfel told the Free
Press. "The numbers don’t have to be right."
Though two separate national studies have been performed to
determine reliable graduation rate estimates for the states and the largest
districts (by the Manhattan and Urban Institutes), neither was able to compute
the rate for Detroit due to missing or flawed data. As a result, it has been
impossible to assess the takeover’s impact on this issue with any certainty.
Its effect on enrollment has been easier to determine: the
pre-existing decline has continued unabated. Detroit public school enrollment
has fallen steadily since the 1996-97 school year, when it totaled 183,447. In
the spring of 1999, when the takeover bill was passed, it stood at 179,103. It
fell to roughly 140,000 by early 2005, and is expected to plummet to 130,000
during the current school year.
The district’s results on the Michigan Education Assessment
Program have proven less bleak. Though scores worsened considerably in
mathematics, they improved even more dramatically in reading, held relatively
steady in science, and improved in writing. In 1999, 48.5 percent of high school
seniors scored at the lowest level ("below basic") in math. By 2005, the number
of low performers had increased to 59.1 percent. But the percentage of students
reading proficiently (those scoring at level 1 or 2) rose from 36.3 to 57.4 over
the same period.
The gap between Detroit students and the state average also
shrank substantially in most subjects — by 6 percentage points in science, and
by 10 in reading. Mathematics was again the exception, with the city/state
performance gap remaining largely unchanged.
But while the gap has narrowed, it remains large in absolute
terms. The percentage of students scoring proficiently on the MEAP in Detroit is
often half the state average. Even when the student population is broken down by
family income level, race, or gender, Detroit students underperform their
subgroup peers in the rest of Michigan.
There is no evidence of a similar improvement in the
district’s finances. A financial report released this spring by the firm MGT
concluded that the district’s fiscal discipline has eroded since 1999.
In the "five year period preceding the (takeover). ... there
were two years where expenditures exceeded revenues to some extent," the report
noted, but "the 1996-1997 through 1998-1999 period reflects a consistent pattern
of operating the General Fund within the limitations of current available
resources." That pattern subsequently changed, as MGT concluded that "[w]ith the
exception of the 2001-2002 fiscal year, DPS has consistently expended resources
in excess of current revenues since 1999-2000."
Data shows continued imbalance in DPS revenue and spending
Detroit Public Schools
increased spending in 2004 despite the loss of several thousand
students. Revenue to the district was also up on a per-pupil level,
but not by enough to keep up with the district’s spending.
Department of Education Bulletin 1014, released over the summer,
shows the Detroit Public Schools overall operating expenditures grew
by $67.5 million in 2004, a 4.3 percent increase over 2003
The district’s per
pupil revenue rose as well. State and local revenues per student
increased by 7.4 percent, and federal revenue rose nearly 28 percent
per pupil. These increases came during a year when inflation was 2.6
percent. Despite the revenue increases, DPS spent $23.4 million
more than it brought in during 2004.
A review of Bulletin
1014 data for DPS from 1994 through 2004 shows significant
investment in the district and a significant reduction in the number
of students it served. Since the passage of Proposal A in 1994, the
revenue received by the district has increased 67 percent per pupil.
Total revenue for the district grew from $1.1 billion in 1994 to
$1.5 billion in 2004, an increase of 38 percent during a period when
cumulative inflation was 21 percent and the number of students
served by the district declined by 17 percent.
With a revenue
increase 17 percentage points above the rate of inflation, and the
loss of 30,000 students, the district struggles financially.
Spending by the district increased by more than the amount of
revenues received. Between 1994 and 2004, total operating
expenditures by the district increased $532 million (48 percent),
while revenues increased $417 million (38 percent). When adjusted
for the enrollment decline, the increase in district expenditures is
79 percent per pupil between 1994 and 2004. Administrative
expenditures increased 108 percent during the same time period.
Adjusted for the decline in enrollment, the district spent 150
percent more in 2004 on administration per pupil than it did in
Increases in per-pupil
revenues similar to those received by the Detroit Public Schools
have been the norm across the state under Proposal A. Districts in
Michigan received an average increase in state and local revenues of
4.4 percent per pupil from 2003 to 2004 (state and local revenues to
Detroit Public Schools increased by 7.4 percent over the same
period), while inflation was 2.6 percent. Since Proposal A, the
amount of state and local revenues per pupil has grown by an average
of 54.9 percent statewide, compared to 61.1 percent for Detroit.
Total inflation during the same 10-year period was 20.9 percent. Per
pupil expenditures, up 55.1 percent at the state level since
Proposal A, have predictably kept pace with revenue increases. This
does not include infrastructure expenditures, which are funded by
local millages. Revenues from such millages are up 217 percent since
Proposal A in 1994.
Economic Group analysis of MDE Bulletin 1014 data
More recently, the district was discovered to have collected
$259 million in property taxes to which it does not appear to have been legally
In a subsequent response, the district questioned the
validity and completeness of the MGT report.
"Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the (MGT) report," the
district wrote, "is that it does not address the core issues that led to the
current budget situation." The district’s position is that MGT should have
considered "the adequacy and equity of district funding," especially as compared
to "that of peer districts."
The Mackinac Center reported in July 2004 that Detroit’s inflation-adjusted
per-pupil spending rose from $8,830 in 1996-1997 to over $11,000 in 2003-2004.