The Right Opinion

Detroit Public Schools: Bankrupting Minority Students' Futures

Exposing the racial injustice of Democrat-controlled education.

By Arnold Ahlert · Jan. 31, 2013

In 2009, when the Detroit Public School (DPS) system was facing bankruptcy engendered by huge operating deficits and widespread corruption, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized it as a “national disgrace.” The disgrace, unfortunately, is much more than meets the eye: For all of the bankrupting spending, the school system’s educational results for the 88 percent black student population remain abysmal. And yet the DPS is but a microcosm of the silent scandal haunting the Left, which controls the district and countless others across the nation in precisely the same circumstances. Throughout America, minority students find themselves conscripted into these institutions of misery, while the architects of their prisons remain accountable to no one.

In 2009, DPS students turned in the lowest scores ever recorded in the national math proficiency test over its then-21-year history. By 2011, school officials were patting themselves on the back for achieving the highest “graduation” rate garnered since the state began using new methodology in 2007 to calculate results. It was 62 percent – meaning nearly two-in-five students failed to get their diploma using this methodology. Furthermore, that graduation rate remained well below the state average of 75.95 percent. Dropout rates for DPS have also decreased from almost 30 percent in 2007 to 19.09 percent in 2010. Yet they too did not favorably compare to the statewide average of 11.07 percent.

As for labeling the increase in the graduation rate a “success” story, such success was belied by a Michigan Department of Education study conducted in 2011. It revealed that the word “graduation” is largely a euphemism. At Renaissance High, the district’s top high school, only ten percent of the students were considered “college ready,” despite a 2010 graduation rate of 95.5 percent. As of June 2012, a dismal 1.8 percent of DPS students throughout the entire system were considered capable of doing college-level work.

In terms of the racial element, Education Trust-Midwest reported that Michigan has one of the worst student achievement gaps in the nation. Thus, Detroit’s overwhelmingly black student body has fallen behind their white counterparts as far as any in the country – and as Michigan Merit Exam (MME) results reveal, the gap is getting larger. In 2011, Detroit tied Washington, D.C. for last place nationwide in eighth-grade reading scores. Only 7 percent of students were grade-level proficient or better, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Almost unbelievably, DPS students were even worse in math. The Education Department’s 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test revealed that a paltry 4 percent of DPS students scored highly enough to be rated “proficient” or better.

None of this stopped Detroit teachers from taking a day off last December 11 to protest Michigan's subsequently enacted right-to-work law. Despite the consistently substandard education produced by the city’s school unions, their members knew that reprisals for either that reality or their illegitimate day off would never be challenged. The Michigan Education Association spent more than $7 million on political contributions, 86 percent of which went to Democrats. That would be the same unions, along with their Democrat enablers, who consistently lobby against reforms such as vouchers, charter schools, the closing of underperforming schools, or anything else that puts the interests of students over those of the union.

Yet there are nascent changes occurring that may finally put those union interests in check. The 2012-2013 school year marks the implementation of the new Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), a state-level entity that manages troubled schools. In Detroit, the EAA took control of 15 school districts and the per-pupil state funding that went with them. It is staffed by recruits from Teach For America, a non-union teaching association comprised of top college graduates. The combination of takeovers and non-union teachers threatens the entrenched interests of the school boards and the unions. The EAA rankled Detroit school board officials to the point that they voted unanimously to withdraw from the state authority.

During the meeting where the vote took place, the board’s urge to eliminate genuine competition was fierce. “We also are going to call upon the parents to drive to stop the expansion of the Education Achievement Authority and we’re going to cancel our relationship with the EAA, so that by the fall we’ll be prepared to absorb those additional kids in our buildings, which are currently being leased for $1 to the EAA system,” said Detroit Board of Education President LaMar Lemmons.

They were also driven to act by what occurred on Election Day. Michigan voters repealed Public Act 4 that allowed the appointment by the governor of fiscal managers to oversee municipalities and school districts that defaulted on their loans. Since 2009, Detroit has had two different emergency managers. Former Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm appointed Robert Bobb, a former president of the Washington, D.C. school board, to run the DPS. Two years later, Roy Roberts was appointed to the same post by Gov. Rick Snyder. After the repeal of Public Act 4, the state asserted that emergency managers were subject to an older, more limited statute called Public Act 72, which still left emergency managers in control.

Yet in Detroit, the school board, wanting to do more than rid themselves of the EAA, also filed a lawsuit to get rid of Roberts, claiming he no longer had the authority to run the DPS. The school district countered that the repeal of Public Act 4 simply reinstated Public Act 72 and Roberts was still in charge. The case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. It ruled 6-0 that it would not overturn a ruling by the state Court of Appeals, which held that Roberts lawfully holds office under Public Act 72. While all of this was occurring, state legislators drafted and passed a substitute statute to give emergency managers more leeway, and Gov. Snyder signed it into law. As a result many of the emergency manager powers have been restored, but districts and municipalities have more time to get their acts together before an emergency manager is appointed.

For the DPS, nothing changes. The EAA is still functional, and Roberts remains charged with the daunting task of bringing the budget back into balance. The latest financial plan for saving the system was obtained by The Detroit News on January 24. It represents the third effort undertaken by DPS officials to deal with the massive deficits that have plagued the system, beginning with a $200 million shortfall in 2009 that rose to $327 million by 2011. According to the paper, the DPS’s financial meltdown will continue through 2016. By then, Roberts expects to have a balanced budget, but the price paid for that balance will be stark: the system that had educated approximately 160,000 students in 2000, will be reduced to serving less than 40,000 pupils sixteen years later.

Some of the budget deficit can be attributed to a continuing exodus of students, averaging about 8,000 per year, at a cost of $7300 in lost aid from the state per student. Thus, the DPS’s expected take of $720 million in revenues to operate the district in 2013 is projected to drop to $622 million by 2014, $580 million by 2015, and $547 million by 2016. Union and school board officials are quick to point out that budget cuts are the chief source of their problems. “How are you going to sell to the community that they should entrust their children to you if you’re constantly cutting?" contended Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson. "You can’t do it…Certainly, you’re going to accelerate the exodus from Detroit Public Schools.”

Yet Johnson and others conveniently ignore the impetus behind that exodus, namely the alienation of their client base. A poll commissioned last October by the Detroit News revealed that a sky-high 79 percent of the eight hundred residents surveyed do not want their children educated by the DPS. They prefer sending their children to a charter school, a private school or a school outside Detroit. In other words, they prefer the one thing that is utterly anathema to the DPS: competition.

Competition is one of the typical fallback excuses used by the DPS and their enablers to rationalize their own ineptitude. In unionized school districts around the nation, the prevailing “wisdom" is that such competition starves the public schools of the vital resources necessary to properly educate children. In Detroit, that is simply not the case. The DPS's per-pupil expenditures were $12,801 in 2009-2010, according to the Census Bureau, or as much as $15,570 per pupil in 2010, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which also noted that Detroit had the highest per pupil expenditures in the state from 2004-2010.

Money well spent? More like an unmitigated disaster, underscored by the reality that nearly half the population of Detroit remains functionally illiterate. A full 47 percent of residents are, as Karen Tyler-Ruiz, director of the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, puts it, "Not able to fill out basic forms, for getting a job–those types of basic everyday (things). Reading a prescription; what’s on the bottle, how many you should take… just your basic everyday tasks,” she said. Thus, rampant illiteracy is part of the status quo the educational establishment in Detroit is fighting tooth and nail to preserve, even as years of empty promises of “reform” creating that illiteracy go unfulfilled.

It’s not hard to understand why. Besides the lack of quality in the classroom, fraud and mismanagement have also plagued the DPS for over a decade. As far back as 1999, a seven-month investigation by the Detroit News concluded that a $1.5 billion bond issue for school improvements was a disaster. “Incompetence, mismanagement, and cronyism by Detroit school officials, employees, and contractors, and a system with inadequate safeguards, have devastated a $1.5 billion school construction project,” the paper stated. In June 2009, Robert Bobb brought in a team of forensic accounting analysts, who discovered that 257 “ghost” employees were receiving paychecks. Two months later, seven more public officials were charged with multiple felonies for operating an embezzlement scheme. It was also discovered that approximately 500 illegal healthcare dependents were costing the district millions. In 2012, a DPS contract accountant and her daughter, a teacher, were indicted by the FBI for fraud, conspiracy and tax charges.

Thus, it is unsurprising that a district boasting a $103.6 million budget surplus as recently as 2002 found itself on the brink of bankruptcy by 2009. Yet such corruption was not limited to people involved with the DPS. It is part of a larger pattern of citywide corruption perpetrated by people such as former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his aide, the wife of House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI), several city council members and a police chief who, along with countless others, were indicted, arrested and/or imprisoned for criminal charges involving bribes, embezzlement and kickbacks. As result, the threat of bankruptcy looms not just over the school system, but the entire city of Detroit as well.

And make no mistake: this is a debacle caused entirely by Democrats. Not a single Republican holds elected office in the city. The last Republican Mayor was Louis Miriani, whose term ended in 1962. It is Democrats who have mortgaged the lives of black American children in Detroit, even as they deem any challenge to their educational monopoly a threat to the students' well-being.

Despite all hollow denials to the contrary, Detroit Democrats and their public school establishment allies own what they have created. The Detroit public school system is bankrupt – morally and financially – and it is black American school children and their parents who are most affected.

Arnold Ahlert is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine.