Gov. Rick Snyder made a frail attempt to eliminate a litany of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) mismanagement and leadership issues with a new governance change. However, there’s no reason to applaud or to be optimistic. This restructuring ploy lacks a long-term benefit and will end up as another near/and or- real death experience.
The move essentially returned control of the district from state to local control. DPS was divided into two new districts. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti now heads the education arm, the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). The old DPS will be the tax collection component that is propped up by a $617-million state-aid package. But by making governance and a financial bailout the focus, the governor has ignored an area that is vital to priming the learning curve and stabilizing the system: the lack of parental involvement.
Since inception, Detroit public schools failed to produced a sure-fire model for making schools learning meccas. From 1842 to 1889 the Board of Education went from a ward system – to 28 members – to a 12-member school board elected at-large – and back to a ward system.
In 1956, citizens argued for a neighborhood concept that would better accommodate the more than 300 schools, 298,000 students and over 10,000 teachers. “Decentralization” was supposed to solve the troubling lack of parent interest by bringing schools closer to the community.
The school district finally departed from a central school structure in 1971 when regional boards were given authority for curriculum, hiring, firing and promotion of personnel. It wasn’t long, though, before decentralization was criticized as extravagant, inefficient, political and incapable of providing needed educational services.
In 1977, Gov. William Milliken and Mayor Coleman Young appointed the Decentralization Study Committee to examine governance, administrative and community involvement. Although the committee concluded that, “Schools were not effectively and efficiently meeting the public expectation and educational needs of the majority of its students,” it backed away from recommending alterations to the governance structure. This angered residents who believed the committee was “stacked” to preserve the decentralization establishment. They mustered enough votes in 1983 to re-centralize the school system under one 11-member central board. The structure came no closer to the goal of academic excellence. Blame was spread between the superintendent and the school board, which paid lip service to reforms but refused to back the reformers with authority or sufficient muscle to bring needed changes to fruition.
A cadre of state appointed emergency financial managers got failing grades for their efforts to stop the hemorrhaging of red ink and students. Every measure to control a spiraling deficit worsened financial and educational prospects. The bottom falling out of student enrollments (maybe 47,000 today), unassailable high dropout rates, low graduation rates and test scores characterized the absence of progress.
Middle-class families left Detroit, or enrolled their children in charter, private or suburban schools. Those remaining tend to be poor, single-parent families, which typically have less formal education and find it difficult or impossible to help their children read or do homework, attend PTA meetings or volunteer for school events.
Some schools closed. Those that stayed open were ill equipped to assume responsibility for these victims of low expectations. New entrants to the city are not enrolling their children in DPS.
Thus, there’s ample reason to believe that Lansing’s latest rescue attempt will be as futile as the myriad DPS restructuring failures of the past. The district is on artificial life support. The prognosis is terminal.