Bankrupt in Detroit: What Does This Mean for the City’s Public Schools?

The Motor City is in trouble—and so are its schools.

Detroit's most determined residents continue to fight for their hometown. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 24, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Even before Detroit filed for bankruptcy last week, its public schools faced a grim situation.

One major problem is that people have been leaving the Motor City for years. In fact, the 2010 census showed just over 700,000 residents.

Without people, schools have less tax revenue. The Detroit News reports that nearly 50 percent of the city’s taxable property parcels were delinquent on their 2011 tax bills. That amounts to about $246.5 million in unpaid taxes.

Fewer residents has also resulted in schools shrinking in pupil size, which has been one reason why schools have been shut down.

With bankruptcy looming, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Jack Martin, 74, a tested financial veteran, to run Detroit’s public school district. Martin said at the time that he would focus on increasing enrollment and starting school promptly.

But some say that politics and the creation of more charter schools lie at the heart of the problem, ultimately undermining the education of thousands of students.

“Gov. Snyder has a Republican majority legislature that has demonstrated its iron fist with respect to matters concerning labor, education, and the city of Detroit. DPS has been under the leadership of three emergency managers including Robert Bobb, Roy Roberts, and now Jack Martin,” Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a new member of the Detroit School Board, told TakePart.

Gay-Dagnogo, who is also the education chair for the National Congress of Black Women-Greater Detroit Chapter, pointed out that Michigan has more than 55 school districts with an existing financial deficit. She said that with Detroit now in bankruptcy, more charter schools are likely.

“With the recent dissolution of three Michigan school districts, and previous lift on Michigan’s charter cap, there will be an influx of new charter schools that will lack the accountability needed to ensure a quality education for children within these systems,” she said.

In 2011, Michigan created the Education Achievement Authority to take over and turn around schools that perform among the lowest five percent in the state. In 2012, it took over 15 schools that were formerly part of Detroit Public Schools. This week, it unveiled a new school enrollment campaign for its “creative, innovative learning environments that provide students a quality education.” The schools are touted as offering “struggling students the opportunity to catch up to their peers around the state.”

Some critics, like Gay-Dagnogo, say the EAA is simply not working.

Stephen Hardy, chief community builder at MindMixer, a unique online engagement platform that’s actively used by more than 350 civic, education, and healthcare organizations across the country, told TakePart that while the Detroit situation may seem dire, opportunity does exists.

“Detroit is the focus of everyone’s attention, and it has all of the challenges you would hope to avoid,” Hardy said. “But with that comes creativity and a can-do spirit of active community leaders. With the national spotlight, I’d argue that the evolution of the way we communicate and tell stories now that they can not only tap their local resources, but the country as a whole.”

MindMixer worked recently in Washington, D.C. to rally parents and community members on its online engagement platform to halt the closure of many of the city’s public schools.

That’s exactly what activists like Gay-Dagnogo want to do.

“There are pockets of excellence taking place throughout our districts,” she said. “There must be greater awareness of the excellence taking place, and allowing educators to take the lead in renewing our district. The greatest urgency is to stop the decline of our student population, make our schools safe, and stabilize the flight of students and staff caused by the uncertainty of the district’s future. Our children deserve a fresh start.”