A Last-Gasp Chance for Detroit’s Abysmal Schools

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Michigan taxpayers are on the verge of sending more than $700 million to Detroit Public Schools in the latest effort to reform the nation’s worst-performing urban school district.

Detroiters are all about the bailout. But you can’t blame other state residents—and the lawmakers who represent them—for not readily jumping on board with the plan.

This is the finale in what has been a 16-year state intervention in the Detroit school district. Without this round of emergency funding, the district is set to go completely broke by April.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has put together a sweeping proposal to restructure the district. But the prospects for those reforms are starting to look shaky, and even the one positive development in Detroit education in recent years—increased school choice—is in danger of retrenchment.

It would hardly be the first time that efforts to revitalize Detroit Public Schools, or DPS, have turned into trouble. The last big initiative from Gov. Snyder was in 2011, when the state broke out the 15 worst schools in Detroit and placed them in a reform district. That experiment didn’t work, and those schools will now likely revert to DPS.

If Gov. Snyder gets the Michigan Legislature to support his current plan for the state’s largest school district, the debt relief would translate to $1,000 more per student. The district has lost roughly 100,000 students in the past decade, and more than half of the city’s kids are in charter, private and suburban schools, but 46,000 children still rely on DPS.

How bad are these schools?

In 2009, DPS broke records for how badly its students performed on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the best measure of student performance among states. In 2015, for the fourth straight year, Detroit students scored the lowest among 21 big-city districts in math and reading. Nationally, the average fourth-grade reading proficiency level is 35%; in Detroit, it’s 6%.

In some schools, the number of students who were proficient in reading and math was near zero. The sad reality is many students aren’t learning much more at school than if they stayed home watching TV.

The district’s buildings are also falling apart, and a recent string of teacher strikes brought some of these conditions to light. Mold, crumbling ceilings and rodents are a few of the problems. That’s despite DPS’s taking on nearly $2 billion in capital debt in the past two decades for infrastructure improvements.

Still, what seems to be a generous bailout from Gov. Snyder—$72 million a year for a decade to erase the debt—is facing opposition, with the loudest protests from the Detroit Federation of Teachers. The union wants the money, with no reforms attached.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Gov. Snyder or his plan. The governor has taken a huge political hit for his handling of the Flint water crisis. DPS and Flint are linked by Darnell Earley’s decision to become the state’s emergency financial manager of the school district a year ago. Mr. Earley served in that same role for the city of Flint, during which time the lead contamination in tap water began. He is now headed out the door.

While most lawmakers accept that Michigan taxpayers are on the hook for much of DPS’s state-backed operational debt—and perhaps another $2.8 billion in capital and pension obligations—they disagree with the governor about how the district should be run.

Gov. Snyder wanted more state oversight in the form of an appointed school board and an education commission that would have directed the opening and closing of all city schools, including charters. But he is now backing away from those concepts to get more support for the financial rescue.

It now looks like once legislation passes, control will quickly return to an elected school board. While that’s what Detroiters want, the school board has a miserable track record. The board president in 2010 was barely literate and was accused of fondling himself during a private meeting with the female superintendent. DPS settled the case for $650,000. The board also once hired an interim superintendent who declared that one of his top priorities was teaching the district’s 90% black students Ebonics.

Given the disaster that is Detroit Public Schools, the city’s best option would seem to be expanding school choice. Charter schools have offered a lifeline to families, and now more than half of Detroit students attend those alternative public schools. That places Detroit behind only New Orleans for the percentage of students in charters.

But many in the charter community worry that this next iteration of Detroit education reform will squeeze out their schools in an attempt to keep DPS classrooms full and the books balanced. Every lost student costs the district more than $7,000 in per-pupil state aid. With the state on the hook for the debt pay-down, it may have a perverse incentive to curtail choice.

A rational assessment of the district’s chronic failure merits a solution that moves away from keeping the district alive and instead focuses on giving children quality schools, even if those schools are outside the traditional public-school model.

But without the community’s support, and with a governor hamstrung by the mess in Flint, it looks like Michigan taxpayers will be again throwing good money after bad in an attempt to save a school district that has defied salvation for decades.

Ms. Jacques is deputy editorial-page editor of the Detroit News. She writes frequently on education in Detroit.

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