Detroit, the “Not So Big Easy:” School Reform in the Midst of Destruction



Eight years ago I made what I thought was an impassioned plea to a group of about 5,000 education researchers. That plea was later published in a journal that reaches 25,000 people with some vested interest in education research. The plea was to not leave the re-building of storm ravaged New Orleans to carpetbaggers, neo-liberals, and/or unscrupulous “entrepreneurs.” I saw New Orleans as a perfect opportunity to take all we knew about high quality education and incorporate it into the “new” New Orleans so that the tens of thousands of children who were disadvantaged by the pre-storm city could finally receive a quality education. Needless to say my dream for the city did not materialize.
Now we are looking at another city that is “storm damaged.” However, the storm Detroit experienced was made by human beings. Mismanagement, lack of investment, a one-industry income and tax base all led to Detroit’s downfall. But where is the recovery plan for Detroit? It seems that the nation wrote Detroit off a long time ago.

In 2009 Detroit Public Schools recorded the lowest mathematics test scores in the history of the national test. It had a budget deficit of $200 million and approximately 8,000 students were leaving the district each year. To remedy these problems the governor appointed an emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb to run the district. Under Mr. Bobb’s leadership teachers conceded $5000 per year in pay and paid more toward their health insurance. As an early adopter of charter schools Detroit has as many students in charters as in district schools. Now the district with a 95 percent African American school population wants to convert all of its schools to charters. Allegedly, moving to charter schools will save the district money since charter schools are typically staffed by nonunion, inexperienced teachers.

However, school reform has not exactly worked in Detroit. Its budget deficit has risen from $200 million to $327 million and 8,000 students continue to leave the district each year. Students in Detroit’s charter schools score about the same on state tests as their Detroit Public School peers. In June of 2011 Mr. Bobb announced the closing of 30 Detroit Public Schools–regardless of the academic performance of the schools.

Detroit Schools are just a microcosm of a the larger problems the city is experiencing. A few months ago we learned that one-half of the city’s 300,000 water utility accounts were delinquent. The city decided it would turn off the water of thousands of city residents, mostly poor and Black. Detroit is plagued with vacant properties and its population dropped by a staggering 25% in the last census. Close to 238,000 people have left the city, almost twice the number that have left New Orleans. Row after row of vacant properties and abandoned lots make life in Detroit for many akin to living in a developing nation without receiving international aid.

There is strong agreement that Detroit is in bad shape and something needs to be done. However, Detroit does not seem to generate much public sympathy across the nation.  In 1975 when New York City was facing bankruptcy a variety of forces–public and private worked to save the city from dropping into insolvency. When General Motors slipped into bankruptcy the federal government declared the corporation “too big to fail” and bailed out the auto giant. But isn’t Detroit too big to fail? Perhaps the truth is Detroit is too Black to save.

What do you think?

Stay Black & Smart!