Rebecca Tarnopol: A better fix for Detroit schools

Thursday, January 28, 2016 - 1:30am

School buildings fester with mold and vermin. Students fill frigid classrooms beyond capacity. Teachers instruct from outdated textbooks, if they even have books at all. 

For the students and teachers of Detroit Public Schools, these sentences do not amount to a mere horror story: It is their reality.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers, the district’s primary teaching union, brought these issues (and many more) to light after sick-outs closed more than half of Detroit’s schools over the past couple of weeks. Though the sick-outs are a fresh tactic taken on by DFT, the problems they protest are anything but new.

“Teachers in DPS have been talking about these things since I was in middle school,” said Michael Chrzan, an LSA and School of Education senior. Chrzan, who attended DPS for his entire grade-school education, graduated from Renaissance High School before coming to the University. He describes his experience at Renaissance, one of the district’s premier magnet schools, as “atypical” compared to other high schools in the city. Though Renaissance had a “college-going culture,” fantastic teachers and state-of-the-art facilities, Chrzan admitted it was not entirely immune to the problems that plague the cash-strapped district: Outdated textbooks, large class sizes with inadequate resources and teacher layoffs were still a reality at his high school.

DPS has struggled over the past couple decades as the district’s enrollment has continually dwindled while its debt has increased. Emergency managers, appointed by the governor, have governed DPS since 2009, after the state deemed the district incapable of handling its own finances. The emergency manager has complete authority over the financial (read: all) matters of the district. Since emergency managers took over DPS, its debt has only deepened; in 2015, under the governance of Darnell Earley, 30 to 40 percent of state funds allocated to DPS were used to pay off city debt instead.    

There is no doubt DFT’s tactics have been effective in exposing their cause. Photos posted to the union’s Twitter account garnered national attention, and the American Federation of Teachers joined forces with DFT to spread their cause. Sick-outs caught the attention of politicians on both local and state levels, as Mayor Mike Duggan toured a handful of Detroit’s schools to inspect their conditions, and Gov. Rick Snyder called for immediate action in his State of the State address.

Snyder’s proposed legislation would split the district into an “old district” and a “new district.” The old district would exist solely to address DPS’s accumulated debt, while the new one, named Detroit Community School District, would facilitate schooling. $250 million from the state’s general fund would fund the new district. A nine-member interim school board appointed by Snyder and Duggan would govern the district until Jan. 1, 2017, when a seven-member elected school board would take power.

Suspiciously absent from these plans are the voices of teachers, students and their families, without whom the need for change within the district would have gone unnoticed.

“Those closest to the problem, being students and families, have great ideas of their own that they can contribute about the use of resources, and they should be allowed to do so,” said Camille Wilson, an associate professor in the School of Education.

Wilson argues that for any tangible change to occur, community involvement — on both the district and school level — is necessary.

Yet Snyder’s legislation fails to take community voices into account. In fact, the state seems to hush them in order to promote its own agenda — one that hasn’t worked over the past seven years.  

Teachers, for example, are kept as far away from the bargaining table as possible: Following a sick-out that closed 88 of DPS’s 97 schools, the district filed an injunction against DFT and other participating parties, citing that the sick-outs “deprived (students) of their right to attend school” and are a “waste of taxpayer money.” Though the court ruled against the injunction, the state’s will to suppress the voice of those closest to the issue is cause for alarm in itself.

The legislation also implements a system that feigns autonomy. Sure, Detroiters get to elect their own school board, but the emergency management system will stay, allowing the state to continue to exercise control over the district.

The state’s rhetoric on the issue is all the more concerning. In his State of the State address, Snyder emphasized the need to improve students’ ability to transition from high school to jobs, implying that higher education is not an attainable — or reasonable — goal for students in DPS. To succeed academically, students in DPS often overcome hardships that students in other districts do not, but receiving a college education certainly isn’t an impossibility for them. Many DPS students graduate and matriculate to colleges each year.

At the University, however, the number of students hailing from DPS, Michigan’s largest school district, is miniscule. Yet this is not a reflection of poor admissions on the University’s end inasmuch as it is a reflection of the repressive system below it. In order to level the playing field of college admissions, we must fix the problem before students’ senior year of high school. We must create equity among our country’s schools so that inner-city students are afforded the same academic opportunities as students in more affluent neighborhoods.

Most students in Detroit simply do not have access to the academic and extracurricular resources that students who attend schools in districts just outside of the city’s limits have. And, as of now, the state has no true plan to fix that.

For Detroit, perhaps the best route to equity is to let the people shape the district themselves.

Rebecca Tarnopol can be reached at