May 30, 2014 at 1:00 am


Where'd our Great Society go?

Exactly 50 years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan, and for the first time he explained his vision for “The Great Society.” It focused largely on America’s cities and its schools.

The Great Society, he said, “is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.” In the most important line for those interested in inner-city schools, the president said, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.”

After a half a century of work taken on by our best minds, strongest backs, and deepest pockets, we must ask, “Have we delivered on this promise to provide low-income urban students with a great education?”

Across America, the answer, sadly, is, “No.”

We don’t have a single high-performing urban school district. According to the Nation’s Report Card, in most cities one or two of every ten low-income students enter high school able to read proficiently.

But nowhere in this nation is the condition of inner-city education direr than in Detroit Public Schools (DPS). One can only imagine LBJ’s reaction had he known that the city school district just 45 miles from the site of his speech would eventually serve as the most compelling evidence of our inability to realize educational equality.

Of the nearly two dozen urban districts participating in the Nation’s Report Card, DPS has the lowest proficiency rates in each of the four tests administered. Even worse, in three of the four tests, DPS scores actually fell over the last several years.

For decades now, families have fled DPS. Once serving nearly 300,000 students, DPS now enrolls only about 50,000. It recently put more than 80 unused buildings up for sale.

A few DPS schools, like those with selective-admissions policies, are doing well. But the prospects for kids assigned to most DPS schools are bleak. Over the years, the state has authorized emergency managers to oversee district and even created of the Education Achievement Authority. But obviously much more is needed. We can’t tolerate another half century of such results.

The nation is watching, and it’s time for the city’s leadership to step up. We must begin carefully planning the replacement of DPS with a new system of schools.

Have no doubt: This will be an extraordinarily difficult task. But Detroit has the right foundation on which to build, and if this transition process is managed with smarts and prudence, Detroit can protect the principles of public education while offering new hope to its families.

In practice this means thoughtfully winding down DPS and expanding the city’s charter school sector, which will become the dominant K-12 public education system.

Thanks to Detroit’s social capital and strong civil society, the building blocks are already in place. The city has countless individuals and organizations that care deeply about Detroit and its children. Charters already currently serve a majority of the city’s students. While some of them struggle, a Stanford University study found that on average students in Detroit charters learn several additional months of reading and math every year compared to similar students in DPS.

City and state leaders, instead of assuming DPS schools will be the dominant provider in perpetuity, should develop a policy and philanthropic environment where the best charters can grow, promising new ones can start, and the lowest performers are closed.

To be clear, this is no privatization scheme. The government will still play an indispensable role, ensuring that families have equitable access to successful schools, disbursing funds fairly, intelligently managing facilities and enrollment, and much more. Families will decide which schools their children attend and a wide range of nonprofit community-based organizations will run and support schools.

No one should believe this transition will be easy. Numerous challenges must be addressed. How do we ensure local democratic control in such a decentralized system? How do we downsize an enormous public bureaucracy? How do we make sure students with disabilities and English language learners receive the support them need?

Change will be difficult, but we simply cannot stay on our current path. DPS has given us no reason to believe it will be able to take us to the destination kids deserve.

Fifty years ago, President Johnson clearly articulated a collective goal—“to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty.” But he knew that old approaches wouldn’t do. He urged “new concepts of cooperation,” arguing to the idealistic audience, “we need your will, and your labor, and your hearts.”

Replacing DPS with a new system of schools powered by families and community-based organizations keeps faith with both LBJ’s powerful sense of urgency for the poor and his view that history appoints the current generation “to lead America toward a new age.”

Andy Smarick (@smarick) is the author of The Urban School System of the Future. He is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a former White House aide, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, and Deputy Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Education.