Some of my readers have probably already heard me say it and are tired of hearing it, but I think universal public education no longer exists. Well, it does exist on paper, but what is happening in a lot — not necessarily even a majority of U.S. school systems, but a significant minority — is that they do not educate kids. This did not happen recently; rather, the system has been dying by a thousand cuts over the past 40 years.
When you have a system overwhelmed by poor children from violent and illiterate backgrounds, teaching is made more difficult, if not impossible. Even if all teachers were motivated and effective, the outcomes would still be worse for poor kids.
In a blue-collar, mediocre but semi-functioning school districts like the one I attended in my K-12 years, there are definitely two tracks — the poor kids with parents who didn’t care were more likely to fail and not to learn anything, and the kids whose parents had money or who cared, which are often but not always correlated, did better and went on to college. The difference in districts like the Detroit Public Schools is that the entire school system is dominated by kids from the first group. Improving outcomes for kids with so many counts already against them would require herculean intervention of time and one-on-one attention by teachers and support staff; how much more difficult, then, to try to do it for thousands of kids from the same background all corralled into and warehoused in the same system?
Richard Kehlenberg has a column about Michelle Rhee on Slate.com where he talks about alternative means of measuring teacher performance and ensuring teacher accountability. It’s worth a read in full. I’ll just focus on the point he makes about the role the composition of a student body plays in a school’s, and a child’s, success:
Rhee’s message about education reform is very seductive because it’s simple and optimistic. Childhood poverty and economic school segregation, in Rhee’s world, are just “excuses” for teacher failure… (as) if poverty and segregation didn’t matter, and (as) if heroic teachers could consistently overcome the odds for students…
(M)ost education researchers, though, recognize that Rhee’s simple vision of heroic teachers saving American education is a fantasy… If the ability to fire bad teachers and pay great teachers more were the key missing ingredient in education reform, why haven’t charter schools, 88% of which are nonunionized and have that flexibility, lit the education world on fire?…
Black children were condemned to separate and unequal education by law until Brown v Board; within 15 years, they were condemned once again by a real estate market that kept them segregated from whites and from anyone with money. Until very recently, most white people would do anything to avoid sending their kids to the same school as black kids. Reversing segregation, then, would seem to be the fundamental goal in improving educational disparities:
Rhee knew that attracting more middle-class students of all races into public schools would strengthen the schools for all students. In one interview, she recounted Warren Buffett’s advice to her that the nation’s education problems would be solved if private schools were made illegal and students were randomly assigned. No one actually advocates that approach, of course, but behind Buffett’s remarks is the old “common school” idea, also inherent in Brown v. Board of Education, that if low-income and black students attend schools with middle-class and white students, they will have far better opportunities. In economically integrated schools, poor students benefit from peers with big dreams, a parental community that is actively involved in school affairs, and strong teachers… Low-income students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools…
What the press never saw… is that Michelle Rhee’s war on teachers’ unions was a sideshow that distracted from the more important effort to give more low-income students a chance to attend middle-class public schools…
Unfortunately for its poor students, most middle-class families simply do not choose DPS, and they never will again for the foreseeable future of the current system. At this point, DPS, like other inner-city school systems, is the under-18 equivalent of our prison system: a warehouse for Michigan’s poor black citizens. Except it is mostly managed by other black Michiganders.
The Slate story cites Rhee’s tenure in DC as an example of how poorly managing race relations can doom reform efforts. But DPS has been under solidly black administration for as far back as I can recall (at least the past decade). How was the race card played here? The state government is proxy for “white people” in Detroit. And so emergency financial manager Robert Bobb was from the very beginning labeled an Uncle Tom by the massive interests in support of the status quo (who in turn dominated the school board). He was vilified and his efforts have been doomed. While, as Jack Lessenbury notes, Bobb’s ‘public relations sense hasn’t always been what it should have been,’
On his worst day, he was better for the kids and the schools than the elected school board, with its long tradition of con men, criminals and illiterate public masturbators.
About those illiterate public masturbators: Ever since I first moved to Detroit, I have been perplexed by the riddle of how it manages to consistently elect such irresponsible and incompetent candidates to their school board. (They used to do the same with City Council, but the 2009 elections gave me hope that things are improving a bit on that front.) I have concluded there is a mis-alignment of incentives that you have to analyze in the context of Detroit voter demographics. I have a whole separate theory about how and why they choose so poorly, but I will save that for some other time. Let it suffice to note that the sad state of DPS owes a lot less to predatory external interests, and more to voter negligence, ignorance and apathy, than a lot of Detroiters and observers would have you think.
Part of why I read Lessenbury is that I share his inherent pessimism, especially when it comes to the future of DPS:
(I)t isn’t clear to me that anyone could save these schools, as burdened as they are by the city’s basic poverty, the state’s stinginess, and layers of bureaucracy and incompetent political appointments…
Doug Ross, a former liberal state senator who now runs the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit, has said he thinks saving the Detroit Public Schools as they now exist is an impossible task. That’s something with which thinkers across the ideological spectrum increasingly, if reluctantly, agree.
Detroit parents certainly seem to agree; most are sensibly voting with their feet. We should applaud that the number of children enrolled every year is shrinking; it means parents both care enough about their kids to choose something else, and have the financial means to do so. There is part of me that believes we should in fact view this dwindling enrollment as a cause for optimism; that it would be a great day when DPS is down to no children, Detroiters could dissolve the district entirely, and the city could move on to replace it with something better, the charade over.
(At the same time, it is my understanding there are still some really terrific schools within DPS that are worth trying to save in one form or another. In that vein, and in the interest of better understanding the situation, if you are a parent whose kids are currently enrolled at, or recently graduated from, a DPS school, I would love to be able to speak with and/or interview you in order to better understand why some parents are sticking with DPS. I imagine for a lot of people they just don’t have any choice — they are tied to a particular Detroit home or apartment building by a Section 8 voucher or an underwater mortgage — but there are likely at least a handful that do. And for some there is likely a stubborn pride: Detroiters don’t like outsiders [i.e. white people] telling them that their schools suck.)
But events are moving even faster than we can keep up. Lessenbury writes that Bobb
went to Lansing last week, asking for what amounted to loan guarantees.
The district doesn’t have enough money to make ends meet, and probably never will… (T)he district already owes a vast amount of money. Six years ago, it took out a $264 million loan.
Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp. ensured that loan, and at the time prudently insisted on one condition: They got the right to block DPS from any more borrowing.
Why? Even back then, Assured Guaranty feared the school system might go bankrupt and leave them holding the bag. The more creditors there were, the less they’d recover. Now the schools are in much worse shape… Because most public education funding comes from a per-pupil grant from the state, the more kids leave, the more in the hole the Detroit Public Schools are.
Not surprisingly, the executives at Assured Guaranty aren’t inclined to say, “Hey, go ahead! Borrow all you want! Pay us, don’t pay us — it’s all good!” … So he (Bobb) went up to visit the Republican-controlled Legislature… Based on the lawmakers I talk with, to say he was viewed with a jaundiced eye would be to show too little respect for jaundice.
“What happens if the schools declare bankruptcy?” Bobb was asked. The emergency financial manager assured them the district had no plans to do that… Rick Wagoner said exactly the same thing about GM, right up until … they filed for bankruptcy…
Bobb will be gone, at the latest by the end of June. I have no doubt that they won’t file for bankruptcy on his watch; that will come later.
All you need to know about the Legislature’s reaction is in a quote Senator Bert Johnson gave the Detroit News:
“I think you’ve got to question if it’s a prudent move, given the nature of the district’s finances. I think these committees are going to demand some serious accountability, and he’s got to prove the merit of his proposal.”
(C)onsider this: Johnson is a Detroit Democrat. If he is that skeptical, what on earth are the Republicans who run the Legislature apt to do? … Does anyone seriously think they are going to give the perpetually insolvent Detroit Public Schools district a loan guarantee for a quarter of a billion dollars?
My guess is that Bobb was just making a statement for the public record… The fact is that he failed in his efforts to turn the schools around… thanks in part to the Great Recession… (T)he deficit is bigger than it was the year he arrived.
We learn this week that he is not going to get that guarantee, and that in fact the state has ordered DPS out of the frying pan and into the fire:
State education officials have ordered Robert Bobb to immediately implement a financial restructuring plan that balances the district’s books by closing half of its schools, swelling high school class sizes to 60 students and consolidating operations…
At sixty kids per class, this is essentially going to become a daycare service. My guess is that they are going to find some way to get around that. But with DPS unable to take out loans, what’s next?
The Republican-led state is not going to bail it out, and couldn’t even if it wanted to. Seeking a federal bailout is another idea. City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, after all, has talked about getting the feds to bail out the city of Detroit. But a bailout for DPS that would ever going to make it out of the teabagged US House. There’s the long shot possibility of Race to the Top funds, but Detroit would have to beat out any number of other school districts across the country; the teabaggers would have to authorize the funding; and it’s not clear to me it would be enough to address the underlying legacy deficit.
With no possibility of bailout, bankruptcy is, in theory, one alternative. Michigan law does not currently provide for anything like a municipal bankruptcy, but apparently that’s not the case for public school systems: one of the conditions of State Superintendant Michael Flanagan’s approval of Mr. Bobb’s deficit elimination plan was that DPS could not declare bankruptcy during the remainder of his contract. I don’t see bankruptcy as being on the table, because not only would the school district lose its ability to borrow, but it would have a ripple effect across Michigan’s many other fiscally broken school districts, making it all but impossible for them to borrow.
And so another alternative is now before the legislature:
Last week, state Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, proposed a bill that would give the emergency financial manager the power to cancel government or teacher union contracts.
If DPS interests think Robert Bobb, a Granholm appointee, is an Uncle Tom, they’re going to LOVE the next financial manager, who we can expect to be significantly further to the right. Whether Detroit voters like it or not, the state will hold all the cards.
Lessenbury quotes a recent column from the Detroit News’ Nolan Finley to outline another potential conservative vision for DPS’ future:
turning DPS “away from an operating model and towards a management model … instead of running schools, the district would oversee a portfolio of schools that are actually run by contractors … selected from a list of education providers with a proven record of success.”
Michigan’s new state government is composed of people from Finley’s end of the spectrum. If Finley’s vision were realized, and if the Pavlov bill makes it into law, we could see the next financial manager rip up the labor contracts, lay off more people, sell off more remaining buildings, and proceed to channel the students remaining in the DPS system into charter schools, perhaps using vouchers financed by the state’s per-pupil allocation, supplemented perhaps by city taxes. It will eliminate most of the old DPS bureaucratic apparatus and its associated expense, but it wouldn’t necessarily do anything to better educational outcomes. Michigan Republicans’ philosophy as regards public education is one of benign neglect, apart from as an excuse to pull funding when it fails; so whether or not Detroit schoolchildren actually see an improvement in their educational attainment, or their preparedness for the 21st century economy, is a topic likely to fly below their radar.
The politics are going to be interesting to watch. Mayor Bing and most of City Council won’t go anywhere near the DPS conflagration, because it has not been in their political short-term interest to do so. They have plenty to fear: DPS is the number one employer in the entire city today and those people VOTE (and then there are the activists who respond to announcements of school closures by grape throwing…) They have been content to let the state play bad cop (or, perhaps, RoboCop?) as it did, to a limited extent, when the Governor’s office and the House were in Democratic hands.
It may be in the Mayor’s and Council’s interest for the Republicans to continue to play bad cop, i.e. implement reforms that are as radical as possible. This would give them maximum cover to request, in the name of safeguarding local autonomy, that authority over the schools be transferred to them, and away from the school board. It could include mayoral control, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has advocated, though not necessarily, since I could see Council opposing it and it is no magic bullet either.
Breaking the power of the school board, once and for all, is important in the medium- to long-term in order to align incentives. The DPS board has been incentivized to protect those who get a paycheck from the schools; the Mayor and Council are also potentially vulnerable to capture by these special interests, but to a much lesser degree. A higher priority for them would be to staunch the net loss of taxpayers from the city, including a slow drip of middle-class families with school-age children.
And yet, I don’t know if I agree with people who say Detroit can only stabilize if its school system reforms and improve. After all, most inner cities across the country have lousy schools compared to their suburbs, but many are actually thriving and few are as bad off as Detroit. The schools are just one symptom of a very complex disease: concentrated poverty.