The new U.S. Secretary of Education on Friday said the federal government has a moral obligation to reform Detroit's failing city schools, which he said will be a "huge focus" of his tenure.
"Without getting into too many details, I am extraordinarily concerned about the poor quality of education, quite frankly, the children of Detroit are receiving," Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters during comments on the federal stimulus package. "I lose sleep over that one. And I think the dropout rate there is devastating."
Detroit must work to improve the education system, he said. In the meantime, the federal government is keeping an eye on the district, where as many as two-thirds of the students may be dropping out.
"That's a city I have a huge focus on," Duncan said. "And I think we have a moral obligation to get dramatically better there to really challenge the status quo."
Detroit district officials would not comment.
Duncan's comments could place added pressure on the beleaguered district, which is facing increasing scrutiny from Lansing for its mounting fiscal problems and dismal test scores. The governor recently appointed a fiscal consultant to take over control of the district's finances next month.
It's also not the first time the Detroit schools have garnered national attention. In 2007, Republican Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the house, derided Detroit's schools as a failure for its high dropout rate. He said the district should be "fundamentally replace(d)" with a series of experiments.
The Detroit schools are beset by daunting problems: troubles with funding, a poverty rate among the highest in the state and students who perform poorly. Detroit Public Schools' students have typically posted some of the worst scores in the state while its high schools are graduating just over half its students.
Independent researchers have estimated a far worse rate, saying from two-thirds to three-quarters of incoming ninth-graders don't earn a diploma.
Compounding the problems is a shrinking enrollment tied to both simple demographics -- there are fewer school-age children in the district -- and performance. Many parents opt for nearby charter schools or move out of the city because of the quality of the schools. That takes more state money out of the district and has forced the closure of dozens of schools.
But Detroit is far from the only district facing similar problems. Locally, Highland Park, Inkster, Ecorse, River Rouge, Pontiac and Oak Park have recorded poor test scores and low graduation rates. All have higher poverty rates than most school districts and each is expected to fare well from the federal stimulus package passed Friday. Some districts will get millions in new federal education money while Detroit may get several hundred million.
"We know our school districts are going to benefit under this plan," said Liz Boyd, a spokesperson for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose latest budget calls for a modest cut in K-12 spending.
Boyd said the governor, whose staff is analyzing the stimulus package to see what it means for Michigan, shares Duncan's concern for the students in Detroit. "Certainly everyone is focused that the Detroit Public Schools are providing students and parents with the education they deserve," she said.
Detroiter Joseph P. Williams, who has a daughter in the 11th grade at Henry Ford High School, said the lack of safety in the schools is a major impediment to learning. A Henry Ford student was shot to death this school year as he was walking home from school. Henry Ford and other schools are reportedly plagued by gangs and fights.
"If we cannot get them in the classroom because they're scared, it's hard to learn," Williams said, adding that he loves Detroit Public Schools but is disappointed in the system.
Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, agrees with Duncan, but he blames the board of education and district leadership -- not teachers.
"They continue to mismanage money, have outstanding debt to vendors and cannot supply the books and supplies needed for children's education," he said. "They spend more time bickering among themselves than on education."
The school system, which amassed a nearly $140 million deficit for fiscal year 2008, is in such dire financial straits that Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction, declared the system to have a financial emergency, leading to the appointment of a financial manager.
Robert Bobb, a financial consultant and former Washington, D.C., school board member, is expected to take control of the system's finances in early March. The district is also considered a federal high-risk district -- only the second ever to receive that designation -- because it has a history of unsatisfactory performance and is not financially stable.
Duncan also criticized the area's leaders for putting politics ahead of kids.
"There have been lots of adult issues and politics that I think have really done our children of Detroit a great disservice," he said.
Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said Duncan and Flanagan have discussed the problems in Detroit Public Schools during a forum with superintendents, and Duncan invited Flanagan to have private conversations on how to address the district's challenges.
Ackley said the federal spotlight on Detroit could spur change in the struggling system.
"There's a realization that from crisis comes opportunity," he said.