Kevin Sweitzer: Return DPS to Detroit

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 6:27pm

Earlier this month, teachers in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) were informed that they would not be paid past June 30 because the district will have run out of money. In response to this, teachers all across Detroit called in sick, forcing 94 of the 97 schools in the district to shut down for two days. This wasn’t just an issue of teachers not being employed in the future, but was an issue of teachers being shorted money they had already earned.

Plans have been underway for months to address the problems in the Detroit school system, including a plan backed by Gov. Rick Snyder — and endorsed by the Editorial Board of the Daily — which would break up DPS into two districts to pay off debt while educating children separately. Despite all of these plans, and all of the supposed action, there still seems to be a piece of the puzzle missing.

I believe that the missing piece is the most important one — the thing that schools have done since the invention of the school — and that is the education of children. DPS has been under emergency financial management since 2009, and in that time, Snyder and the rest of the Michigan Legislature have run an operation that is obsessed with the repayment of debt. This obsession runs so deep that earlier this year, The Detroit News reported that, for the first time, debt payments are close to the same amount that is paid in salary and operating costs. For many, this flawed logic of debt payment makes sense. Maybe even Snyder and his emergency managers think that this plan is working.

In reality, nothing is working in the Detroit Public School system.

Even though the debt payments are at the highest levels that they have ever been, the debt is still increasing. Additionally, the money to pay off the debt doesn’t come from nowhere. It is estimated that more than $3,000 per student per year goes directly to paying the debt. That means $3,000 less per year to educate a child. With almost 50,000 students, this quickly adds up to a budgetary disaster. The biggest school district in Michigan can’t be expected to provide a quality education if it essentially receives $3,000 less per student than surrounding districts, which are often able to raise their own money through high property taxes.

While Snyder and the Republicans in Lansing cry about debt emergencies, I cry about education emergencies. The DPS district has not been under control of locally-elected leadership for close to a decade, and it has seen students shipped off to charter schools and debt wrung up at the hands of emergency managers, all in the name of debt reduction. However, the issues in DPS won’t be over just when the debt is paid off. What will happen once the governor has bled the Detroit schools dry of cash? When will education of our most vulnerable youth be a priority? We must realize that students, and not the payment of debt, should be the priority.

In order for the Detroit Public Schools to become a fully-functioning educational powerhouse, the state of Michigan needs to do something that will actually help the students. Ending emergency financial management, returning power to the democratically elected leaders and absorbing a portion of the debt are all parts of a greater solution, but in order for DPS to make a long-term comeback, the state needs to increase per-pupil funding to students in Detroit. Just as many private colleges give underrepresented minorities a boost when considering them for admission, the state of Michigan should give its largest and most struggling district a financial boost so it can be on the same level as other areas. Just like the college admission example, there needs to be an equitable fix, giving every student access to quality education, not just a flat rate for a student behind a desk.

I don’t want to be another drive-by pundit who claims to know “the fix” for Detroit schools, but I do want to challenge Michigan Legislature to set aside their mission to eliminate the debt in search of a better solution. It is our responsibility as a state to allow for local solutions to local problems while assisting in any way we can. In order for Detroit schoolchildren to be served justly, we must look at Detroit schools as more than a mountain of debt, and understand the true potential that the district possesses. 

Kevin Sweitzer can be reached at ksweitz@umich.edu