By the time Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced Monday that she was looking to place full control of Detroit Public Schools into the hands of her duly-appointed financial czar, Robert Bobb, its reputation as America’s most-abysmal traditional public school district had already become as much a national joke as the Motor City itself.
Last month, Detroit Public drew cackles after news came out that the average math scores of its 4th- and 8th-graders trailed behind every one of the 18 school districts — even notorious laggards such as D.C. Public Schools and Cleveland — measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal benchmark for academic performance. Smarmy Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith succinctly summed up national sentiment when he declared that he would “burn the place down” if his children were in school there.
Motown parents, on the other hand, demanded jail time for the district’s teachers and administrators after learning that 69-percent of the district’s 4th-graders — and 77 percent of 8th-graders — performed at or below NAEP’s standard for “basic” proficiency. Given that just three out of every ten high school freshmen attending its dropout factories graduate four years later, Bobb admitted that the district’s woeful performance is “a failure of leadership.”
By the end of the month, Detroit was raked over the coals by school reformers when it struck a new collective bargaining agreement with its AFT local that features new perks such as a three-minute reduction in average working day for elementary school teachers. The fact that the contract will allow laggard teachers kicked out of classrooms to continue collecting a salary while ostensibly rehabilitating their performance — a much-mocked feature of New York City’s expired contract with its AFT affiliate — led Education Sector cofounder (and Eduwonk proprietor) Andy Rotherham to call the contract “cheap” and “far from revolutionary enough.”
Certainly Detroit is far from the only urban school system where systemic failure is coin of the realm. But four decades of school reform has forced longstanding cellar-dwellers such as D.C., New York City, and even Los Angeles Unified to overhaul curricula, improve the quality of its teachers and turn the tables on teachers unions and graft-grabbing politicos that have long called the shots. Detroit, on the other hand, has remained stubbornly mired in stunning depths of academic, bureaucratic, and fiscal incompetence.
Whether or not Bobb — or even a possible takeover of the district by the equally scandalously incompetent city government — will lead to a turnaround remains to be seen. It may be just as likely that the Motor City will follow the same path as New Orleans, where the traditional public school district has been all but abandoned by parents for charter schools since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
With four-fifths of black and white male freshmen dropping out of high school by senior year, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Detroit ranks alongside an equally-notorious Midwestern school district, Indianapolis Public Schools, as the worst public system for young men to attend. But this woeful statistic doesn’t even fully convey the depths of the district’s dysfunction.
Within the past decade, Detroit has twice-landed in de facto state receivership after spates of degenerate corruption and incorrigible theft. Last month, a former truck driver for the district was indicted for allegedly pilfering $70,000 in computer equipment. In August, five employees were arrested on embezzlement charges; one staffer managed to allegedly grab $25,000 in checks and cash withdrawals during her employ. An audit found that the district paid $2 million to provide health insurance for ineligible dependents of district employees.
The criminality, alleged and proven, has been matched by stupendous fiscal mismanagement. An audit found that Detroit bought 160 BlackBerries and 11 motorcycles on the taxpayers’ dime. The misspending goes back years. In 2002, three years after the state had first removed the school board for widespread graft, the district still managed to strike a deal to buy five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $24 million, more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building.
Meanwhile the quality of teaching inside Detroit schools can only be described as disgraceful. Back in 1999, the Detroit Free Press found that 14 percent of teachers were absent on any given day during the school year, with the average teacher out of school 10 days each year; the statistics haven’t likely changed. Fourteen percent of Detroit teachers conducted classes outside of their subject area. As a result, students are often being taught by substitute teachers — who often have less training than their fully employed colleagues.
The school district’s dysfunction has grown so noticeable that it has even made the city government’s spate of indictments and convictions — including former city councilwoman (and congressman’s wife) Monica Conyers’ guilty plea for collecting $6,000 in bribes from a city contractor — seem like child’s play. As the Detroit Free Press noted last month in one of its editorials: “Detroit has no future, if this is allowed to stand.”
Like the city it serves so poorly, Detroit Public Schools wasn’t always synonymous with urban school failure. During the early 1900s, then-Superintendent Wales Martindale introduced the first wave of standardized testing and kindergarten classrooms, along with revising its English curriculum and introducing commercial math classes so children would stay in school till graduation. But Martindale’s heavy-handed politicking would annoy that era’s progressive activists; their successful effort to oust him would lead Detroit to become the trailblazer in the development of the modern public school district.
But by 1999, suburban flight and ill-fated efforts to decentralize the school bureaucracy would expose the school district to the kind of racial politics and graft that poisoned city government. The rise of the AFT’s Detroit local as a force in school board and local politics also complicated efforts to improve the district’s academics and operations. That year, the union went on strike after the district proposed to hold back annual pay hikes for teachers absent more than eight days during the school year; the district would eventually back away from the proposal. Seven years later, the union staged another strike that shut down schools for 16 days.
By then, students and their families began fleeing the district in droves; Detroit lost 54 percent of its enrollment between 1999-2000 and 2008-2009. Many would flee to the city’s charter schools, which have proven to provide better opportunities for rigorous education; charters now account for 32 percent of public school enrollment, the third-highest after New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
Granholm’s plan would likely abolish Detroit’s already-waylaid school board once and for all, placing control in the hands of Bobb, who already controls the district’s finances. But while Bobb has won over Granholm, the state legislature has already rejected one effort to give him a free hand. In any case, his tenure has shown that he’s done little more than adopt the tactics of shutting down schools and laying off teachers already used with little success by his predecessors. He also negotiated the district’s much-derided teachers’ contract.
Handing over control to onetime Detroit Pistons guard-turned-Mayor Dave Bing — an approach that has proven successful in New York City and D.C. — isn’t likely to be palatable to either state legislators or taxpayers mindful of the city government’s widespread corruption. Memories of Bing’s infamous predecessor, Kwame Kilpatrick — now facing a second tour in prison due to alleged parole violations — also makes mayoral control unlikely.
Granholm may be better off adopting the tactic of former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, whose one sterling success may have been enacting a series of moves that has made New Orleans the leading hotbed for school reform even amid its sluggish recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s man-made and natural disasters. Given the desperate straits in which Motown is currently mired, shutting down the school district and adding more charters wouldn’t exactly be any worse than shutting down General Motors.