The state of Michigan took control of Detroit Public Schools in 1999 through Public Act 10, which replaced the democratically elected school board with a CEO whose power encompassed that of a school board and a superintendent. This loss of local control caused the first decline in DPS enrollment in a decade; for the next school year, approximately 5,000 students left the district. Over the next 16 years, the state has only ceded control of DPS for approximately three years, and DPS is currently controlled by the district’s fourth emergency manager, Darnell Earley, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in January. Put simply, DPS has deteriorated under state control, and on June 16, the Detroit Board of Education filed a Title VI complaint against the governor, asking that the Department of Justice look into the misspending of public funds, the violation of special education students’ rights and discrimination by the state. Moving forward, the state must return control of DPS back to the school board and the federal government should act diligently in investigating the claims made by the board.
As a result of state control of DPS as well as Public Act 362 of 1993, which established charter schools in Detroit, DPS has become progressively worse from both fiscal and enrollment standpoints. According to the Title VI complaint, in 1999, when the state first took control, DPS had a stable budget, a $93 million surplus and 173,000 students. Currently, DPS has an enrollment of less than 50,000 and a budget deficit of approximately $350 million. The state’s use of public funds is highly questionable; millions of dollars have been used to renovate buildings that have been subsequently demolished, abandoned or sold at a price lower than the cost of repairs. In fact, only about half of bond money, paid for and approved by Detroit citizens, has gone to repairing buildings that are still in use by DPS. Twenty-eight buildings had $295.4 million invested in them, but are now leased to charter schools, community organizations and Snyder’s new school district, the Educational Achievement Authority, which he did not have the authority nor the legislative permission to create. The charter schools that have benefitted from state intervention are directly in competition with DPS, and these schools have increased enrollment to about 40,000 students. From these facts alone, the state’s use of DPS bond money is, at best, poorly planned and wildly ineffective. At worst, it is blatantly corrupt and maliciously depriving Detroit students of their education. The Department of Justice needs to carefully examine who has benefitted from money spent by the state on DPS; clearly the main beneficiary was not DPS.
The complaint claims, “Governor Snyder has usurped the authority of the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent and that of the locally elected school boards and replaced them with a corrupt, syndicate like, racketeering operation, resulting in the worst academic performances and fiscal insolvency in the history of the State of Michigan.” This degradation of DPS, and thus Detroit students’ academics, has come at great cost to Detroit. The effects of poor education can be seen in Detroit’s poverty rates. Of the nation’s 50 largest cities, Detroit has the most children living in extreme poverty, with, as of 2012, approximately 59 percent of Detroit children living in poverty. Considering that education is widely considered to be a means to escape poverty and access a better life, the decline of DPS effectively closes this door to many children. If the claims made by the Detroit Board of Education are true, the state of Michigan can be blamed for many of the social issues, including poverty, that face Detroit today.
The low caliber of education and high rate of poverty take on a racial dimension in Detroit, which has the highest concentration of racial minorities of any U.S. city with a population of over 100,000. Furthermore, another minority population affected by DPS is special education students, as DPS has the highest population of special education students in Michigan. The complaint alleges that both groups have been discriminated against by the state. It accuses the state of creating “two separate and unequal school systems” in Detroit and other majority-Black school districts across the state. Additionally, it claims that special education students have suffered as a result of state control of DPS. According to the complaint, teacher witnesses and complainants have seen ongoing patterns of discrimination against special needs children, whose needs are not being met and Individualized Education Programs are not being followed. These allegations of discrimination are serious but warranted, and the Department of Justice will hopefully shed light on whether these instances of inequality are in fact the result of state control of DPS. Until such a time, though, it is unthinkable to allow DPS to continue to flounder under an emergency manager.