I covered the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) as a reporter for WWJ radio in the mid-1970s. In the ensuing years I watched as the district was decentralized, recentralized and managed by various boards and appointed managers, some wielding extraordinary powers.
I have yet to see significant academic improvement, increased community involvement or abatement in the slide in student population. And no one is likely to witness positive change in these areas if the reigns of the education delivery system are returned to the Board of Education.
Back then I could have never imagined the chaos and uncertainty that has become the order of the day. The courts are involved in determining whether school czar Roy Roberts legally holds office under the old Public Act 72 following repeal by Michigan voters of Public Act 4, the state’s emergency manager law. It’s still not clear whether the school board still has control over the district’s education apparatus — if not financial operations.
Shock waves would reverberate throughout the district if Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette were successful in removing seven of Detroit’s 11 board members. A lawsuit filed by the AG contends that only a first-class school district with 100,000 students may elect members by districts. Detroit’s student population is about half that number. In the 70s, enrollment topped 200,000.
After a cursory look at the history of DPS, it should surprise no one that the district is on a doomsday watch. Neither efficient management nor the successful education of children has been top priorities under duly elected school boards or state appointed managers.
Expectations for school reform were high when Roberts was named to the post. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot to be desired from his leadership.
Roberts has not defined or executed workable solutions to the district’s organizational, financial, administration and support systems. His good intentions notwithstanding, modifications he engineered are either bogged down in a laborious implementation process or highlighted by misdirection. Consolidating failing schools under an Education Achievement Authority, for example, is about the same as building another bureaucratic castle in the sky.
As Roberts and the school board grapple with control issues, parents are voicing their displeasure by disinvesting from the system. Neither, for example, has demonstrated much of a willingness to embrace the kind of transformation that would benefit students most.
Public opinion polls show parents want expanded school choice. That’s reflected in the fact that when a new charter school opens in the city, it’s almost immediately filled with defecting DPS students.
School boards by culture, temperament and habit are prone to incremental rather than radical change, which makes school operations under board leadership indefensible and perilous. So unless the status-quo board can demonstrate it has a plan that meets what the public demands and students’ need today, Roy Roberts, if only by default, should remain in place.
Those playing the power game should understand they have more than a parochial interest in improving schools. Detroit’s recovery depends in large part on a well-educated workforce. Parents who place a value on learning consider the quality of education in making relocation decisions. Unfortunately, DPS deficiencies rank with high-crime rates as a prime reason the city is not attractive for married couples with children.
But if Detroiters want to see a total collapse of an already academically bankrupt system, support the return of the board to power.
It may be folly to think that a broad political consensus to reconstruct Detroit’s faltering system can be found in time to prevent the inexorable implosion. Even if a school partnership with Roy Roberts and the governor is deemed unacceptable, there is no upside to a debate skewed toward the narrow goals and objectives of the board and away from what is best for educationally deprived kids.
The mission of the school district, after all, is supposed to be about educating the city’s children. Remember them?