Detroit, Education, Emergency Manager Law, Emergency Managers — March 20, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Detroit Public Schools: A case study in the failure of the Emergency Manager system


Lansing, we have a problem

The amped-up Emergency Manager laws passed by Michigan Republicans in 2011 and again in 2012 were specifically designed to give far more sweeping powers to the one unelected potentate who assumes control of the school district or municipality. The sweeping away of local elected officials and the snuffing out of local democracy was needed, said the proponents, because the elected leaders were simply incapable of doing the job properly themselves. In fact, the unspoken implication is the local communities deserved to lose their democracy since they voted for such inept leaders in the first place.

The bedrock presumption in all of this is that the state is completely capable of stepping in and handling the affairs of the local municipality or of the school district.

I have said all along that the nothing in the latest two version of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law arms the Emergency Managers with the tools of construction they need to rebuild a sustainable community or a sustainable school district. Revenues aren’t increased nor is the ability to raise revenue improved. The systemic problems that lead to financial crises and emergency management aren’t in any way addressed. Crumbling infrastructure, imploded tax base, crushing poverty, disinvestment, and hollowed out city centers all still exist after the departure of an Emergency Manager. Benton Harbor which recently was declared to be “fixed” under 26-year old Emergency Manager Tony Saunders still has a large percentage of its population who are unemployed, lacking in adequate education, and living in poverty. Their existence is an inconvenient fact for those who would love nothing more than to drive them out, raze their neighborhoods, and develop the valuable real estate for huge profits.

Nothing has been done to solve the problems that lead to Benton Harbor’s emergency in the first place.

The case study for the failure of the Emergency Manager system in our state, however, is Detroit Public Schools. Poor performance of students was blamed on teachers and their financial catastrophe was blamed on inept management. The state swooped in, installed and Emergency Manager, and promised to solve both problems.

In fact, after five years, DPS is still deeply in debt and DPS students are no farther along academically than they were before. Today we learn that DPS’s debt has skyrocketed $39 million in just three months. $21 millionof that jump — well over half — is due to state cuts to Title I funding sent to districts with large numbers of students living in poverty. The other 46% is due to a continuing loss of students and city residents as well as lower tax receipts. In other words, over half the debt was inflicted by the state government and the other portion is due to the same sorts of problems experienced when the local school board was in control

With regard to academic performance, Wayne State University Professor Tom Pedroni has shown us that, for two consecutive years, student MEAP test scores are not improving. In his piece “Another lost year: Children in state-managed Detroit schools lose even more ground to state“. Like last year, the news is not good. In fact, relative to their peers around the state, DPS students are falling farther behind still:

Sadly, grievously—the new MEAP data, released February 28, reveal the further deepening of a devastating pattern. In both reading and math, Detroit’s children have fallen even further behind their state peers. Somehow, in 10 of the 12 grade-level math and reading MEAP tests, Detroit’s children under state control in DPS and the EAA have lost even more ground this past year.

Fourth graders in Detroit’s state-managed schools actually progressed marginally in reading relative to their Michigan peers, bringing the proficiency gap down by 0.8 points to 29.5 percentage points. But in every other tested grade– third, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth– they fell even further behind in reading. In math, Detroit’s sixth grade students in state-managed schools gained marginally on their Michigan peers (by 0.3 points) and are now only 27.7 percentage points behind. But they lost even more ground to their statewide peers in all the other tested grades– third, fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth.

In other words, little has changed in the Detroit Public Schools. The systemic problems that created the financial and academic emergency are still there and, more importantly, are having the same impact, proving that the crisis had less to do with the actors than the environment they were acting in. Despite the presumption that the state would swoop and save the day, that simply has not happened.

I’m not saying nothing has improved in DPS. But things improved from time to time before the Emergency Manager was installed which took away local control. And I would argue ending local democracy is not justified by the incremental or even non-existent improvements that may or may not have been achieved.

Like the failed EAA experiment, all of us want to “do something!” in Detroit Public Schools. The problem is that these are difficult and complex problems and the answers won’t be easy. Putting a dictator in place may look like an easy solution. But local dictatorships that supplant local democracy are as un-American as they are ineffective.

The irony is that the same political party that waves flags, worships the constitution, exalts local control, and hails its members as patriots is the same party whose members are in full support of eliminating local democracy when it is inconvenient.