What Will Become of Public Education in Detroit?
OK, I'm pretty sure that it's safe to say that Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb has been a failure. He's screwed up the DPS transportation system, with results ranging from comical to pathetic. He's exacerbated problems among special-needs students. He's slashed school resources while spending on pricey consultants. He convinced voters to approve a $500-million construction bond even as his own demographers argued that enrollment would continue to plummet. And, of course, he's ballooned the very budget deficit that he was hired to eliminate. And yes, there was his yadayadayada about going to lame-duck politicians to get the state to absolve the DPS debt or else...but even that seems like so much of the same brand of smoke he's been blowing.
Sure, he's done all of this with an undeniable air of professionalism and charm — but by every available measure, the man's tenure has been a flop. Meanwhile, come March, when his contract expires, it'll all be water under the Belle Isle Bridge. He's likely out of here, joining the lame duck governor who appointed him, and the district won't have a single gain to show for it.
But we can kvetch about this later. Right now, my question is simply this: What comes next?
Just how badly has an already dismal school system been further weakened by the state's incompetent intervention? Has Bobb set the stage for the dismantling of much of public education in Detroit? Are we on the cusp of a new era, one where we'll see a weakened, shrunken DPS surrounded by an array of charter schools, private institutions and a host of random education "experiments?" Will the mayor eventually be granted the control he seems so lukewarm about assuming? Will we eventually abandon the belief that our government owes each and every child a quality education? (Already, I'm hearing right-wing extremists call for the abolition of public education entirely.)
Surely, we're going to have to change how we teach and prepare our children. But in the wake of the abject failure of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's appointee to do anything to improve schools, where do we go from here?
I'll always maintain that education of our children starts in our homes, in our communities. I don't believe that any system that we devise can work properly without the diligent oversight of parents, all parents. DPS as currently configured doesn't struggle simply because of intractable unions or kleptomaniacal contractors. It struggles largely because too many parents just don't care enough to get involved to any serious extent. No matter what form of administration is instituted, more people in this area have got to become more engaged with the whens, hows and whys of their children's education.
I also believe in local government control of schools, for accountability's sake mainly. As contemptuous as I remain of former board members like Otis Mathis, there's no proof that the state can run the city's schools any better than local pols. Twice now, the state has stepped in to "help" Detroit and, in both instances, has only made matters worse. (The first time, in 1999, Gov. John Engler took over a DPS that boasted a $90-million surplus and transformed that surplus into a $250 million debt -- and somehow, nobody went to jail.)
So what needs to happen in Detroit's public schools for them to finally turn the corner? Certainly, the schools are still filled with bright students and willing, capable teachers. But these folks are being overwhelmed by the lack of resources, the disinvestment by parents, the corruption and foolishness of adult overseers and disengaged peers who see little value in book learning. Heck, even many of those who do graduate often struggle when they get to college, finding out too late that they've been poorly prepared for the next level.
The problems seem to be worsening, and no one seems to have any answers. Do you?