Detroit’s Public School Plague

by

A teacher walkout highlights the need for radical reform.

Jan. 22, 2016 5:55 p.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal

As if Flint’s water crisis wasn’t bad enough for urban Michigan, on Wednesday 88 of Detroit’s 100 public schools shut down, after 800 some teachers called in sick purportedly to protest their abject working conditions. Many Motown schools are a picture of poverty, but the root of the rot is the lack of accountability for failure.

Unions orchestrated Wednesday’s teacher “sick-out,” the latest of more than a half dozen this school year, to coincide with President Obama’s visit touting the White House auto bailout. Their goal is to draw political steam from Flint, flog supposed Republican racial animus—95% of students are black or Latino—and impel a bailout.

Media accounts of Detroit schools have documented rodent infestation, caving ceilings, black mold and putrid air. Emergency manager Darnell Earley, who previously ran Flint until being redeployed this month to Detroit by Governor Rick Snyder, has become a scapegoat. But the collapse of Detroit’s schools has been decades in the making.

Enrollment has fallen by two-thirds since 2000 due to population flight and charter-school expansion. Public schools have lost about 71,000 students in a decade while charters have gained 23,000. About 53% of Detroit students attend charters compared to 20% in 2006.

Detroit Public Schools have $3.5 billion in liabilities including $1.3 billion for pension and retirement health benefits. Since 2009 the public school system has been under the guardianship of a state emergency manager. Although 100 schools have since closed, deficits persist. This year’s $215 million hole is nearly a third of the district’s general fund revenues.

The district has repeatedly borrowed to balance its budget in lieu of making capital repairs and improvements. Legacy costs have diverted money from instruction, while good teachers have left for charters that offer more freedom and class discipline. Seniority-based layoffs force out promising young teachers while tenure protects the worst. Collective bargaining agreements block reforms like longer school days. The union contract also prohibits strikes, so instead teachers call in sick.

No surprise then that Detroit has ranked at the bottom of 21 large urban public school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2009. Last year only 4% of Detroit eighth graders were proficient in math and 7% in reading. A Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcome study last year found that Detroit charter students on average gained 65 days of learning in math and 50 days in reading per year over their public school counterparts.

Mr. Snyder has proposed spinning off Detroit Public Schools’ debt, which would be paid down over time with state aid. A new debt-free district would be created with state funds. Financial engineering and more aid may forestall bankruptcy, but they won’t improve math scores.

Detroit schools need radical reform, and the expiration of the teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement in June gives state guardians an opening. One model is New Orleans, which converted nearly all of its schools to charters after Hurricane Katrina. Strict accountability should require low-performing charters to close. Detroit’s poverty is real, but it doesn’t excuse continuing educational failure.

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