Student exodus saps Detroit school finances

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit can't keep its schoolchildren: Each day, an estimated 25,000 school-age children go to suburban districts, leaving seats empty in classrooms citywide.

More than 8,000 attend traditional districts in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, while 17,000 are in suburban charters, state data from 2013-14 show.

Some suburban districts, especially those in financial distress, now rely on Detroit's children — and the state aid they bring with them — to survive.

These reciprocal ties played out publicly this past week when East Detroit Public Schools, just north of Detroit's Eight Mile border, reversed its decision to end participation in the state Schools of Choice program for students outside Macomb County.

The district, in Schools of Choice since 2012, expects by June to eliminate a deficit that once was $8 million.

Unionized teachers protested the plan to limit choice, saying the Macomb County district would lose up to $2 million in state aid if it refused students from Detroit and elsewhere in Wayne County. If the district could afford that, the union reasoned, it could return millions of dollars in concessions the union took in the last three years.

The school board buckled.

East Detroit, where about 373 Detroit children attend school this year, is not alone in relying on Detroit schoolchildren.

In 2013-14, 1,871 Detroit children attended the Oak Park School District, while 411 attended Ferndale Public Schools, both in Oakland County. Each Detroit child brought at least $7,246 in per-pupil state aid. For Oak Park, it meant a boost of $13.5 million.

For each child who leaves, equivalent aid is lost in Detroit Public Schools, a trend that has sent DPS into a financial free-fall.

The impact of Detroit's mobile K-12 population is one of the challenges facing a coalition of community and business leaders who plan Monday to make recommendations to Gov. Rick Snyder for sweeping changes to education in Detroit.

"A lot of the Schools of Choice students that are entering Macomb County public schools in southern Macomb County are coming from Detroit. In some cases, parents are moving here to look for better opportunities. That's a positive. We are getting new student enrollment," said state Rep. Sarah Roberts.

"But that hurts Detroit education. We need a strong system in Detroit," said Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores. "We need Detroit to be a place where people want to live, work and raise their families."

Parents have pulled their children from Detroit schools for a variety of reasons: safety concerns, low-performing school programs, poor transportation and reduced services, to name a few. Besides leaving for suburban schools, more than 58,000 Detroit children attend charter schools in the city, according to a national charter school group.

If education is reformed, will students stay in the city to attend school? Will deficit-ridden suburban districts survive without the influx of aid that Detroit's children bring?

Whatever recommendations are made, Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, thinks the flight of schoolchildren from Detroit will not stop.

"If you close all the charter schools, it's not going to stop. About 100,000 students make use of Schools of Choice in Michigan. That widespread use of choice is evidence that everyone can't be served in their own geographic area," Spalding said.

Havoc on school budgets

Although many districts embrace choice, many do not. Some districts that border Detroit enforce strict residency rules.

Spalding said she gets calls from people who want the policy center to help investigate kids they think don't belong in their district. Many of those calls come from Detroit's inner-ring suburbs.

"It's really difficult to hear that, because the point of our public education system is to serve the kids," she said. "There are reasons kids and families are traveling so far away to go to another school. I understand the difficulty the district faces when so many are leaving. There is a reason they are leaving."

Spalding would like to see recommendation that increase choice and make it easier to apply to several schools. Limiting choice is not the answer, she said.

"It's unfair to say to Detroit families, especially with quality issues, that they should have less of an ability to access choice," she said.

Chris Wigent, executive director at the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said student mobility has wide-ranging implications for students and districts. Kids come in at varying education levels compared with their peers; they often need more intense educational services, and often they don't stay, moving to a second and third new district in a single year, wreaking havoc on school budgets.

"Mobility is substantial and that does create problems when a child has been in three districts for the last year," Wigent said. "I'm hopeful the coalition comes up with some very good ideas so people feel comfortable to stay in Detroit. Parents want their children to attend school where they live."

Deficits eliminated

Entering school districts outside their city can be tough on children who have to deal with transportation challenges, making new friends and adjusting to new educational methods.

Robert Floden, co-founder of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said solving Detroit's education problem should concern everyone, regardless of where they live and where their children attend school.

"These are kids who are going to grow up, and for the health of the state you want them to have the skills they need to succeed in life and be gainfully employed. More education is associated with less crime and incarceration. You want them to be productive citizens," Floden said.

Derrick R. Coleman is superintendent of the River Rouge School District, where half of the current enrollment of 1,500 comes from choice students. Of those 750 students, most are from Detroit, Coleman said. In 2013-14, the district had 431 Detroit children in its schools, according to state data.

Coleman, a former assistant superintendent at DPS, said the influx of Detroit children and others from across the region has made his district more competitive in offering services and led the district to sharpen its focus on customer service so it retains all students.

That includes paying for busing for choice students, some of whom come from around Eight Mile and Evergreen in northwest Detroit.

Coleman said in the last three years, the district has enrolled an additional 200 students from Detroit every year. The extra revenue from Schools of Choice allowed the Downriver district to eliminate its $3.4 million deficit a year early, he said.

"Enrollment drives our budget. We need to retain the students and focus on making ourselves desirable for families looking for quality education," Coleman said.

Changes are coming for Detroit, but they won't happen overnight, said Coleman who says families leave Detroit for a variety of reasons, not just academic.

"I want to be the preeminent destination for urban education in southeast Michigan. ... Our strength is with people feeling valued," he said.

DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said the district has worked to upgrade its offerings and attract students, efforts that have slowed the system's enrollment decline.

"Still, the scores of Detroit families who depart the city each day to attend school elsewhere should be of particular concern to school and city leaders alike," Wasko said.

"Ultimately, the best choice should be the family's neighborhood school, and we have to redouble our efforts to provide that option, for the only path to long-term city and educational stability is a community with the school as the building block, supported by family and support services easily accessed within that neighborhood."

Coalition report due

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren will announce its final recommendations to improve Detroit's educational landscape at a media conference at 4 p.m. Monday.

Come back to for updates on the recommendations.