Thinking the Unthinkable About Detroit Public Schools

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Recently the Detroit Public Schools system uncovered (another) accounting scandal, and when the books were corrected the district found itself with a $408 million deficit, or more than a third of it’s annual operating budget.

 

Over the years it’s become painfully obvious that the DPS is a hopelessly corrupt and dysfunctional institution. The district’s obscenely-low graduation rate of 24.9 percent placed it at number 50 in a recent study of the country’s 50 largest cities school systems. As for financial management, an interesting article on a socialist Web site characterized both the city and school political establishments as follows: “. . . a layer of urban petty bourgeois view the city (and DPS- jm) and its largely working class residents as its own private cash trough.”

 

In short, the district is bankrupt by every measure but one – moral, financial, educational. Only legal bankruptcy remains – and that may be inevitable.

 

To be fair, there are some good people trying to turn things around, but such efforts swim against strong cultural and institutional tides. A new superintendant appears to be earnest in her efforts to bring reform (her capacity to do so is less apparent), and just this week the school board approved her proposal to bring in the highly regarded Institute for Student Achievement to reorganize five broken schools.

 

Even that modest reform has been delayed for a year, however, and in any event was mandated by failing school sanctions required under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The inescapable reality is that the tipping point for DPS was probably passed long ago. Another generation of Detroit children shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of propping up a corrupt school establishment for a few more years.

 

What’s the alternative? Perhaps it’s time to think the unthinkable. Bankruptcy. The real deal – not Chapter 11, Reorganization, but Chapter 7, Liquidation.* Shut the whole thing down, dismiss all the employees, and liquidate the assets.

 

Simultaneously, replace it with charter schools. Eliminate statutory restrictions that limit these in the city, and let 100 flowers bloom there. Authorize organizations like the Institute for Student Achievement to manage schools. Bring in for-profit entities like Edison Schools and Heritage Academies. There are a few individual Detroit schools that are thriving – turn over their ownership and management to parents and staff. Heck, even let neighboring public school districts “poach” into the city’s territory and open schools there.

 

This alternative is less radical than it seems, since 30 percent of students within the DPS boundaries already attend charters or neighboring districts under the state’s public schools of choice program.

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There’s an interesting angle on this idea, however, and one that makes it a little more challenging: Charter schools generally do not participate in the state-run school employee pension and post-retirement health benefit system (MPSERS). That system is already groaning under the excessively generous benefits and loose eligibility standards  perpetrated by successive legislatures. A recent projection showed that that in barely 10 years more than 30 percent of school payrolls would be needed to cover those benefits. The 30-percent figure was rolled back a bit by a minor eligibility reform adopted last fall, but the system is still far too liberal.

Question: What happens to that system when some 15,000 Detroit school employees are permanently pink-slipped, and the pension fund contributions made on their behalf stop flowing into MPSERS? The money for those contributions all comes from local and state property taxes under the complicated Proposal A formula, but most of it would now be flowing to charter schools instead, which (mostly) don’t contribute to MPSERS.

Could this trigger a domino effect, bringing about a general Michigan state and municipal pension system meltdown? Practically all of those systems are already actuarially unsustainable, with billions of dollars worth of unfunded health benefit promises.

Probably not, for this reason: Charter schools cost a lot less to operate than conventional public schools, and the revenue that currently props up DPS would still be flowing. So it wouldn’t be that monumental a task for the legislature to cobble together a fix that avoids a broad financial meltdown statewide.

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Of course, all this would require a huge measure of political will and goodwill – something sorely lacking in Michigan’s and Detroit’s political establishments. Frankly, the DPS is a genuine human tragedy that’s been allowed to fester for decades, and it’s shameful that nothing like this has been done before – and probably won’t be done in the near future.

 

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*Technically Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in the federal code applies to individuals and business entities including corporations. Chapter 9 applies to government entities, including a school district, but does not encompass liquidation. What would be involved with a DPS dissolution along the lines described here would probably be Chapter 9 filing combined with legislative action to perform actual closure of the institution and liquidation of its assets – a “virtual” Chapter 7.
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5 Responses to “Thinking the Unthinkable About Detroit Public Schools”

  1. edbooked Says:

    The corrupt and dysfunctional nature of public education school systems you note is hardly unique to Detroit. The novel, The Twilight’s Last Gleaming On Public Educaton, which possesses many of the elements commonly found in just about every school system throughout the United States, discusses the potential, challenges, and obstacles that currently litter the public education landscape in America. You may view a portion of this intriguing, socially relevant, and enlightening story online by contacing the publisher at www. Xlibris.com, clicking on their Bookstgore link, then Searching by title. Check it our for yourself, then see how you can help implement desired changes.

  2. jmchugh4u Says:

    Thanks, Edbooked! Huh – a novel. That indeed sounds like an interesting and potentially effective way to convey the dysfunctions and outright moral outrage that characterizes the nations worst school systems (not to mention the mediocrity that characterizes most of the rest of them). I don’t get cable so haven’t seen “The Wire” episodes using drama to expose another corrupt government school institution, the one in Baltimore, but the reviews suggest that it was pretty darned effective.

  3. Bruce Hall Says:

    Jack,

    I vacillate between thinking of Detroit’s politicians and administrators as corrupt and incompetent; perhaps it is because they are both.

    The problem is that Detroit is approaching a state of chaos. The school system reflects that and is broken with there is no real plan for repair. Rather there are random shots at attacking symptoms of the chaos.

    I don’t place the blame entirely on Detroit’s system. In general, education labors under the burden of too many outside mandates with too little outside resources. Regardless, there are plenty of examples of successful system after which Detroit could model itself… but it may be too little too late.

    I have an post today that speaks to one of the issues: http://hallofrecord.blogspot.com/2008/07/dropping-out.html

    … and the ridiculous effort of one high school principal.

  4. IUD Side Effects Says:

    the public schools on our district can really give some good education to young kids. they have high standards ~’*

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