The Great Emigration

Detroit Public Schools Enrollment chart
Detroit Public Schools figures show a net decline of more than 40,000 students since the 1996-1997 school year — nearly a quarter of its earlier enrollment. The loss is partly attributable to families choosing charter schools, but also partly due to families moving from the district in search of better schools.

Detroit grew during the early 20th century thanks to the “Great Migration” — people from the rural South seeking better jobs and better schools in the urban North. But the same aspirations that lured them into the city in earlier generations are driving them out of it today.

During the past 40 years, Detroit has lost three-quarters of a million residents. “White flight” accounted for much of the drop in the early years, but the city’s population has contracted by more than 80,000 people in the last decade, and this exodus has a different cause. Kurt Metzger, research director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, told the Detroit Free Press:

If people are the lifeblood of a city, then Detroit is bleeding to death. Staunching the flow will require a dramatic improvement in the city’s schools.

The city's losing middle- and upper-middle-income black families who can't stay in the city… and have problems with services and worry about schools. … They're voting with their feet. They've stayed a long time, they've fought the battle and now … they're moving to the suburbs.

Call it the Great Emigration. If people are the lifeblood of a city, then Detroit is bleeding to death. Staunching the flow will require a dramatic improvement in the city’s schools.

Five years ago, Gov. John Engler and the Legislature tried to push through such an improvement by taking over the district’s school board and authorizing the mayor to appoint a new one. That effort failed, and after the overwhelming defeat of Proposal E last November, the board takeover will soon be just a footnote in Detroit Public Schools history.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Before 1949, school district finances were handled by the mayor and the city council, and the system was plagued with mismanagement then, too. Detroit subsequently had an elected school board for the entire second half of the 20th century – a period not known for strong student performance or high graduation rates. That’s why so many parents left, and why so many more are still leaving.

Detroit has tried seating a school board both ways, and its own history proves that switching between elected and appointed public school governance is a pointless, cosmetic change. Many Detroiters complained that the school “takeover” took power out of their hands, but the only power they ever had was to put different faces behind the table at school board meetings. What good, ultimately, is that? It certainly doesn’t let parents take their kids out of failing classrooms or schools and move them into better ones.

For parents to have real power they need real choice. They won’t get it from reshuffling the school board, and it isn’t going to be offered to them by bureaucrats or union leaders, either. Several weeks ago, three would-be leaders of the Detroit Federation of Teachers laid out their education agenda: rescind planned layoffs and school closings; “dramatically lower the class size in all grades”; reopen schools and rehire employees (though district figures show that nearly a quarter of the pupils have left the system since 1996); and demand that state government pay for all of the above.

Even if this implausible scenario came to pass, its main beneficiary would be the union, not the kids.

And don’t expect lawmakers or the business community to lead the charge for parental empowerment in Detroit schools, either. They’ve both been slapped down in that effort before.

No, it’s up to Detroiters this time.

If Detroit parents really want to take back control of their children’s education, they have a couple of options. The first is to demand that state legislators enact a bill empowering every family with the money to choose their child’s school, public or private. If the demand clearly came from the community, traditional opposition by the Legislature’s union-backed education caucus would likely fracture, allowing a real chance at success.

Alternately, community leaders could band together and convince businesses to support a private, need-based tuition scholarship fund. They could point out that it makes more sense to give children access to a decent education while they are in school than to pay for retraining or unemployment benefits after-the-fact.

Whatever the route, the goal is to put Detroit parents in charge of their own children’s education by giving them control of the purse strings. When that happens, with all the direct and indirect benefits that will flow from it, parents will finally have a reason to stay in the city instead of leave it. The Great Migration will have paid off — and the Great Emigration might end.


Andrew J. Coulson is senior fellow in education policy 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.


Detroit’s declining population is due in large part to its citizens’ dissatisfaction with the city’s schools. Changing the way the school board is selected won’t address the systemic problems of education in Detroit; school choice will.

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