Proposition S on the November 6 general election ballot in Detroit asks for voter approval of an 10-year, 18-mill, $80 million reauthorization, which is approximately 21-percent of the annual operating budget for Detroit Public Schools.
I’m not convinced that the education delivery system will show dramatic improvement with its passage. But I have no doubt that the children will suffer immensely if voters shoot the millage request down.
DPS Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts has been at the helm for about 16 months. That should be sufficient time to reform even a system mired in mediocrity and rife with dissension. Seizing control of the district’s chronic financial crisis has been at the top of Roberts’ agenda. Academic achievement, though, has taken a back seat.
Students have enormous gaps in the core subjects of math, science, history, geography and English. More than half are ranked at or near the bottom of performance, making them poorly prepared for the world of work. Absenteeism and dropout rates are atrocious.
It won’t be easy getting students eager to use their minds to challenge, to question to probe and discover. Making test scores soar and dropout rates plummet will be a major accomplishment. But there is power in a dream of excellence.
For that, Roberts needs a bold but realistic long-range set of objectives and a resolve to be their constant advocate. He must be able to look beyond the district’s weaknesses to see that all kids can do wonderful things through hard work and support.
If the idea is to save children now, more schools of choice and charter public schools — fully empowered and accountable — would begin to separate the control of resources, investments and returns from the failed central bureaucracy. If the goal is a world-class school system, Roberts must aim for performance standards that challenge educators to keep pace in a high-technology age.
Teachers also need a spirit of enthusiasm that infuses the system with a sense of the possible and the freedom to take risks. To ask that they have high expectations for every child is to ask them to believe that every child can learn, each one has potential, each can be empowered by knowledge and everyone counts. But more than a well-articulated education philosophy, the vision must become the mantra in every classroom and every school and shared by the community.
I still believe that most Detroiters are no different from other parents who want higher, not lower standards of achievement. That’s not to say they expect miracles. But an entire community has pinned its hopes on Roberts’ success. As the single most powerful transmitter of the values of learning, his success is the city’s success.
Unfortunately Roy Roberts isn’t there yet.
The district remains adrift and out of control. There’s interference from a school board more adept at obstructionism than creative action. Attempts by some board members to sabotage reform should be viewed as a recklessly, unforgivable disservice to the students they are committed to serve.
The infighting also makes it difficult for some parents to justify another large and long-term financial commitment. So unless the emergency manager and the recalcitrant board show more unity toward common goals, the academic and financial deficiencies will exacerbate student suffering and compel parents to look elsewhere for the elusive dream of excellence.
But this isn’t about Roy Roberts.
Despite many DPS shortcomings, Proposal S looms as a critical reinvestment in education-deprived children. With passage of this millage, and conscientious oversight by a vigilant community, the troubled school system has a chance to rise from the depths of despair to its potential. Without it, all is lost.