Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Inside Detroit’s Radical Experiment to Save Its Public Schools | TIME

Inside Detroit’s Radical Experiment to Save Its Public Schools | TIME:

Inside Detroit’s Radical Experiment to Save Its Public Schools

An unprecedented idea may help stabilize the city's public schools—or signal their demise

When Detroit students return to school on Sept. 6, the rodents and mold found in classrooms last year will be all but gone. Cracked windows will be repaired. Collapsed ceilings patched up. Chipped paint removed. Last year, not a single Detroit public school complied with the city’s public health and safety codes, one reason teachers protested with widespread sick-outs that temporarily crippled the system. This year, 92% of schools are in full compliance.

The most significant changes for the country’s most challenged big-city school system, however, will be right beneath the surface. Beyond cleaned-up classrooms, Detroit’s students will return to a brand-new district altogether—one that isn’t saddled with mountains of debt. This new district is the result of a radical idea: that ailing public entities such as school systems could be overhauled like a bankrupt business.
In June, Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed a sweeping education package to provide financial support for Detroit’s public schools modeled on the 2009 restructuring of General Motors. The legislation left the old district behind as a shell to pay down $515 million in operating debt, similar to GM’s Chapter 11 that created an “old” and “new” General Motors, with the aim of restructuring a public school system that was all but bankrupt. Millions of dollars were allocated to repair the district’s aging facilities, and the legislation allowed the schools—which include some of the nation’s worst and have been under state-run emergency management since 2009—to return to a locally run school board. “DPS is fiscally sound now,” says John Walsh, Gov. Snyder’s director of strategy. Snyder’s use of state-appointed emergency managers has been widely scrutinized since the water crisis in Flint, where lead leeched into the municipal water supply while the city’s finances were being overseen by the state. The water crisis raised questions about Snyder’s reliance on state managers to step in and fix local issues.
The unprecedented experiment is being closely watched by other struggling urban public school systems around the U.S. “There are quite a number of districts that are ending up on the brink of bankruptcy,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at the University of Washington that supports charter schools. “There’s a lot of attention on Detroit.”
But public school advocates worry that the legislation does nothing to ensure that DPS will be able to provide quality education in the long term to compete with the growing number of charter schools throughout Detroit. Some even argue that lawmakers may have opened the door to an all-charter system—and potentially the end of the Detroit public schools altogether.
Hitting Bottom
The rise and fall of Detroit’s schools mirrors the city itself, which once had one of the biggest school districts in the country, hitting peak enrollment in 1966 at 299,962 students. But the decline of Detroit’s automobile industry brought a dramatic, decades-long population slide for the city and its schools, with white residents especially leaving the city for the suburbs.
In 1994, Michigan legislators passed Proposal A, which shifted education funding from local property taxes to state taxes in an effort designed to equalize the quality of the state’s schools across affluent and low-income areas. The New York Times called it “the nation’s most dramatic shift in a century in the way public schools are financed.” The state tied funding directly to enrollment, meaning the more students a district had, the more money it would get. Proposal A also ushered in the city’s first charter schools, which would get state funding but operate independently of existing school districts, something so dramatic TIME put the realignment on its cover in October 1994 under the headline: “New Hope for Public Schools.” The population in Detroit, however, kept falling, and the district had difficulty adjusting to the annual loss of students and routinely budgeted for more students than actually enrolled.
Detroit Population and Public School Enrollment, 1970-2015
Public School Enrollment
Total Population
Detroit Public and Charter School Enrollment, 2009-2015
Public School Enrollment
Charter School Enrollment
As funding declined, the district was constricted across the board. Facilities weren’t properly maintained. Teachers were let go. Class offerings were cut. And parents increasingly opted for charter schools, leading to further DPS enrollment cuts. Over the last 25 years, Detroit’s population has declined by 34%, but public school enrollment has gone down 73%, and by 2012, charter schools were educating more students in Detroit than public schools. The school district now has fewer than 50,000 students. Academic Inside Detroit’s Radical Experiment to Save Its Public Schools | TIME:

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