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Detroit Public Schools: Beyond a State of Emergency

January 17, 2016

Since 1999, the state has been “taking over” Detroit Public Schools. Since 2009, Detroit’s schools have been subject to a stream of emergency managers who move in for just under 18 months, do not answer to voters, and can basically do what they want without consequence.

The Detroit Public Schools state takeover is a dismal failure, as noted in this February 2015 Metro Times article:

The district’s struggles can be traced to a skein of historic factors, beginning with the city’s long-declining population, a trend that started in the 1950s and continues today.

Another major factor was the approval of 1994’s Proposal A in a statewide referendum that radically changed the way Michigan finances education, shifting from a primary reliance on local property taxes to a “per pupil” foundation grant provided by the state.

The two factors — the continued loss of students and the state funding that comes with them (currently $7,296) — combined with a host of other problems to throw the district into a long downward spiral.

In an attempt to reverse that trend, the state has tried twice in the last two decades to address the crisis — not by addressing the underlying structural issues, but by usurping the elected board’s power.

The most recent Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, Darnell Earley, is chiefly responsible for water contamination in Flint, Michigan.

Detroit’s schools are in crisis, and being state-run has only exacerbated the problem.

In October 2015, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced a legislative package that would involve establishing a new Detroit school district while leaving the old district in place to pay off Detroit Public Schools’ crippling debt. The new, traditional school board would initially be appointed by the governor and mayor and would become an elected board by 2021. The new system would also be open enrollment.

In a January 14, 2016, Detroit Free Press article, lawmakers express concern over Snyder’s plan for Detroit public education:

The proposed legislation, which was introduced Thursday, would start with an appointed nine-member interim school board, with five of the members appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder and four by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. That board would hire a superintendent for the district. A nine-member school board — seven members from districts throughout the city and two from at-large — would be elected by Detroit voters in November and take over governing the district on Jan. 1, 2017.

That school board, however, would be more symbolic than substantive, said state Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, because it would have no control over the hiring of a superintendent and would be subject to the same financial review commission that oversees the City of Detroit’s finances.

“It doesn’t go far enough to address our concerns. There should not be any appointed board for any length of time,” he said. “This is just going to be another form of an emergency manager.” …

Other concerns for Detroit lawmakers is the continuation of a form of the Education Achievement Authority, which will be run by a state-appointed CEO who will have authority over the bottom 5% of low-achieving schools in the state. The fact that a source hasn’t been identified to come up with the $515 million needed to pay off Detroit’s debt also is problematic, although a $250-million transfer from the state’s general fund has been included to establish the new district. …

Duggan didn’t support or reject the legislation.

“Coalition members and I, along with community stakeholders, the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) and the State Board of Education, are working closely with our Detroit legislators to have a single, unified position to eliminate the debt that is choking our schools; return control of DPS to a locally elected school board, and to create a Detroit Education Commission to establish a single standard of performance for all public schools in Detroit — district and charter,” he said in a statement referring to the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. …

Part of the concern for Republicans are sick-outs by Detroit teachers protesting conditions in the schools.  Dozens of schools have closed over the last two weeks. …

[The lead sponsor of the bills, Sen. Goeff] Hansen said he expects hearings to be held on the two bills — SB 710 and 711 — within the next two weeks, with a goal of passing the legislation by April, when it is projected that DPS may run out of money.

As it stands, Detroit Public Schools are beyond deplorable.

In an effort to heighten national awareness about the Detroit Public Schools crisis, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) produced the following four-minute tour of Spain Elementary School featuring counselor Lakia Wilson:

And Detroit teachers, parents, and other activists have been publicizing the terrible conditions of Detroit Public Schools, as well. The following images have been taken from the Detroitteach Twitter page. Note that the images below are from facilities that continue to house children and their teachers.


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Above: Toilets leaking into preschool classrooms.

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Above: Broken bathroom stall for young children.

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Above: Pictures from a classroom.

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Detroit school floor

Competent intervention into the Detroit Public Schools crisis should have happened years ago. Let’s hope Michigan lawmakers are able to do right by Detroit in 2016.


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Harlan Underhill permalink

    When the DPS was under control of an elected school board, graft, corruption, and dishonesty permeated it from top to bottom, as was also the City administration in Detroit. That’s why it crashed, simple theft and incompetence at every level. Snyder is the good guy in the story.

  2. Dr. Rich Swier permalink

    Great. Posted:


    On Sun, Jan 17, 2016 at 10:36 PM, deutsch29 wrote:

    > deutsch29 posted: “Since 1999, the state has been “taking over” Detroit > Public Schools. Since 2009, Detroit’s schools have been subject to a stream > of emergency managers who move in for just under 18 months, do not answer > to voters, and can basically do what they want witho” >

  3. Laura H.Chapman permalink

    Thank you for getting the pictures out. This is worse than any words can capture. I do think that deep seated corruption beyond the governance of schools contributes to this, also an acclimation of very poor populations to not having their voices heard with protest fatigue setting in. Note that it is the teachers who are making these horrible conditions visible.

  4. Christine Langhoff permalink

    This is simply atrocious. Unfortunately, I believe many teachers across the country in urban settings could post similar pictures, perhaps less dire but still unacceptable, of their schools.

    I taught in a building which had unexplained leaks, classrooms without heat, rodent infestations and terrible air quality for 13 years. Strenuous, repeated and sustained efforts to have the city pay attention and correct these deficits were not received with any degree of alarm or haste. A city counselor whom I contacted came out and pronounced the building “disgusting”, but took no steps to help, though he did contact me to ask for a campaign contribution for a susequent run for mayor.

    This was in a very highly regarded, selective admissions school whose students were regularly accepted at some of our most elite universities – Harvard, MIT, Brown, Syracuse, Smith, Dartmouth, BU and BC to name a few. 87% of our students were minority and nearly all were poor. Another selective admissions school less than a mile away (with nearly inverse demographics) has simply beautiful facilities, comparable to those in one of our wealthy, leafy suburbs. After some of my students attended a college fair held at the other facility, they were talking about the sharply different physical plants, and one of my kids commented that it was probably because the other students were so much smarter than those at our school. Neglecting the space that kids spend their days in sends has a pernicious effect on their self worth.

    • Christine Langhoff permalink

      Something I neglected to mention is that not only students’ but teachers’ health, too is harmed. Each winter I suffered from respiratory infections which lasted six to eight weeks, including pneumonia twice and bronchitis. I had to take repeated courses of antibiotics and use an inhaler. (Since retiring four years ago, I have been sick only once.) My own children were young at this time and it was difficult for me to rest and recover. I had to use many sick days, which had a negative impact financially at retirement, as our contract allows unused sick leave a 40% reimbursement at separation.

  5. Jill S permalink

    No public school in a suburban district would ever look that bad. Parents would storm school board meetings and it would be fixed. But we vote for our school board officials and they send their children to the same schools. Skin in the game seems to be everything!

  6. Beth Novick permalink

    The American public school system remains “separate and unequal” for many students.

  7. Your post and the images brought back memories of the classrooms and schools I taught out of in Southern California for thirty years that made not only me sick but some of my students too, and along with those memories came the tears. It was depressing being sick all the time at work knowing that students were also suffering the same symptoms.

    It was so bad at times, that when students weren’t in the classroom, I had to wear a industrial grade mask with built in HEPA filters so I could breathe clean air and stop the wheezing and headaches. A few times, it was so bad, I evacuated the classroom and taught my students in the library. In addition, I bought several portable HEPA filters and placed them around the room filtering the air to help the children I taught not get sick. It’s really a challenge to teach children who are also sick the same as me.

    I’d walk into the classroom without a headache and not wheezing and in minutes the headache would be pounding and I’d be struggling to breathe. Then I’d start to pop the pills the doctor superscribed to help combat the environment I worked in to slow up and/or stop the sinus drainage.

    When I complained, admistnra6tion told me I was the only one and traded me like I was delusional until I reached out to the entire staff and discovered I wasn’t alone. A quarter of the staff was also suffering the same symptoms.

  8. Reblogged this on Crazy Normal – the Classroom Exposé and commented:
    Reading this post brought back a flood of memories that caused my eyes to fill with tears. I also taught in classrooms and schools that were run down and in need of serious upgrading and repairs.

  9. Ken Watanabe permalink

    Both Snyder and Earley are responsible for Fukushimatizing the incident that could have been averted. They are guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 2016 Medley #3 | Live Long and Prosper
  2. Mercedes Schneider: This is What Detroit Public Schools Look Like | Diane Ravitch's blog
  3. The School Choice We Have Vs. The Choice We Want
  4. The School Choice We Have Vs. The Choice We Want | Education Opportunity Network

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