Detroit’s Broken School System

Detroit is a classic story of a once-thriving city that has lost its employment base, its upper and middle classes, and much of its hope for the future. The city has been on a long, slow decline for decades. It’s difficult to convey the postapocalyptic nature of Detroit. Miles upon miles of abandoned houses are in piles of rot and ashes. Unemployment, violent crime, and decades of underinvestment have led to a near-complete breakdown of civic infrastructure: the roads are terrible, the police are understaffed, and there is a deeply insufficient social safety net.

There are new federal funds and private investment being directed to Detroit’s renewal. Bankruptcy proceedings are finally under way, and a new mayor wants to make a fresh start. But it’s hard to see how a renaissance can occur without making headway on the public schools. Detroit parents still have very few high-quality options, despite a number of different reform interventions, including putting a state-appointed emergency manager in charge of the district, pulling the lowest-performing schools into a statewide turnaround district, and allowing a significant number of charter schools to operate.

Ms. Gordon (not her real name) is a lifelong Detroit resident. Her 11-year-old son will enter middle school in the fall of 2014, and she is anxious about how to find and choose his next school. He has not had an easy time in elementary school; he struggled academically and was often in trouble for his behavior. Over the years, she has tried to talk to the principal and her son’s teachers, but it always felt as though no one was listening to her concerns or willing to work with her to address them. Now, as she’s looking for a middle school, she wants her son to have a fresh start and a chance to get the academic and social support that he needs. A friend suggested she look at the charter school that her daughter attends. The school sounded interesting, but Ms. Gordon decided it was too far away for her son to travel there safely on his own. Even if she could find a safe route, she was disappointed to read in a parent guide [published by Excellent Schools Detroit] that the kids at the charter school weren’t doing any better than those at the low-performing neighborhood middle school. In fact, few schools looked like good options, even though there were many to choose from. As she faced spring enrollment decisions at the time we talked to her, she felt she was no closer to finding a school that would be a good fit for her son. She expressed frustration and despair, recounting her efforts: “It just feels like you have to fight for your kids every day in this city, because no one else will.” 

Detroit Needs a Plan 

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

That plan will have to address negligent charter authorizers and persistently low-performing charter schools, and identify novel ways to build and attract high-quality school-management organizations. It will also have to come up with strategies for restructuring or replacing most of the schools run by the school district and the state-run EAA.

We heard from many thoughtful advocates and civic leaders in Detroit who are trying to develop creative solutions for renewing Detroit’s schools. Their ideas tended to coalesce around five strategies:

1. Develop a strong core of high-quality schools in the charter sector by working with the best charter authorizers to develop quality benchmarks and close low-performing charters in a targeted set of neighborhoods. Local leaders also told us that they believe the governor is the only official who has the needed credibility and authority to weigh in on negligent charter authorizers.

2. Leverage change from the bottom up by helping parents and communities to push authorizers and the district to increase performance accountability. Community groups such as the Detroit Parent Network, Excellent Schools Detroit, and the Skillman Foundation are leading efforts to inform parents about their options and how to identify a high-quality school.

3. Double down on recruiting talented school leaders and teachers to Detroit. There have been some investments in Teach for America and other talent-recruitment strategies, but many observers believe they need an even stronger focus on human capital to bolster nascent high-quality local school providers. While through 2011, Detroit’s school spending was on a par with similar  cities (see Figure 3), charter schools in the city and statewide have received considerably less funding per pupil than district schools. Equalized, student-based funding, many say, would help to attract high-quality charter providers. DPS is also challenged to attract talent thanks to a 10 percent salary concession the emergency manager has put in place as a result of the district’s extreme financial deficit.


4. Engage Detroit city leaders, like the mayor and local developers, in addressing safety, transit, and social-service support to help families and schools develop a strong choice infrastructure. These efforts should be leveraged along with other urban-renewal strategies in the city.

5. Recognize that DPS is at risk for financial collapse and develop a plan to replace DPS with a community “portfolio manager” board and superintendent who will see their role as overseeing a citywide system of high-quality schools rather than operating schools directly. This would likely mean sharing district facilities and special education services with charter schools, and coordinated information and enrollment systems.

Given that there seems to be little appetite from the state legislature and governor for legislative action on these fronts, much of these efforts have to be driven by local leaders. One strategy is for a group of charter authorizers, district leaders, and school and school association leaders to come together to take a stand for quality to build on the existing success stories in Detroit. A public statement followed by a series of activities to promote more high-quality schools could drive improvement from the ground up if state leaders continue to fail to act. The group could form a powerful lobby to rally needed state and federal investment and regulations.

Another solution is to create a Detroit-based nonprofit organization that has sufficient funding and authority to be the citywide coordinating body for all public school buildings, special services for families, transportation, enrollment, and parent information systems. The mayor and foundation leaders could help tremendously by investing in citywide safe transit routes for students and new solutions for choice-based special education and mental health services, as well as counselors and consultants to help families navigate the choice process.

There are no simple solutions for Detroit, but it is clear that no progress will be made until state and local leaders stop trying to defend their turf and start solving the very real problems that parents face. As one Detroit community leader opined,

Detroit parents made it clear to us that they don’t care whether their child’s school is called a charter school, district, EAA, or private school. What they want and need is for some one to take responsibility for making sure that when their child heads to school each day, he or she will be safe, cared for, and well educated so that Detroit can rise again.