Bankole: Detroit schools still face many challenges

Bankole Thompson
Detroit Public Schools is still challenged to deliver meaningful education to Detroit children after decades of mismanagement resulting mostly from state oversight while current Superintendent Nikolai Vitti pushes for needed reforms.

“We are so far from the struggles against desegregation, so far from the legal battles of the Brown decision, so far removed from the marches at Selma and Birmingham and Montgomery that somehow the generation who did not march has forgotten how to march,” Manning Marable, the late black scholar and Columbia University professor once observed.

Marable’s supposition about how little progress has been made in the area of racial equality since the civil rights movement underscores the need for a thorough examination about where blacks currently are. That need is even more urgent in the wake of the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. The ruling handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, found that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

But since the historic decision, the promise of Brown has largely gone unfulfilled, as unacceptable disparities between suburban and urban school districts continue to rise. In fact, a report released earlier this year by EdBuild, a Washington, D.C.-based group that monitors school funding issues, underscores the magnitude of the crisis that engulfs poor districts.

The report estimated that $23 billion less is spent on non-white school districts, and that as of 2016 suburban school districts receive $13,908 for every student compared to only $11,682 for students in underserved and poverty-stricken districts.

According to the report, about 12.8 million students, or 27 percent, who are enrolled in school are in districts where 75 percent or more of the students are non-white and 26 percent are in white districts.

“Despite more than a half-century of integration efforts, the majority of America’s school children still attend racially concentrated school systems. This is reflective of the long history of segregation policies related to everything from voting to housing that have drawn lines and divided our communities,” the report stated.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District in many ways embodies that reality, and unfortunately represents the unfulfilled hopes of the Brown decision. The district is still challenged to deliver meaningful education to Detroit children after decades of mismanagement resulting mostly from state oversight while Superintendent Nikolai Vitti pushes for needed reforms.

It should not be lost on anyone that race has been at the center of the problems that have handicapped the district for years and how it subsequently imploded and failed Detroit kids, something that Vitti himself boldly acknowledged after he took the job of leading the district two years ago.

Vitti said last year: “There is a racist element to what has happened. Children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens. When a system is allowed to be run over a decade by individuals that had no track record of education reform, no governance structure, years and years of low performance, lack of growth, drop in enrollment, that would never, ever happen in any white suburban district in this country."

Vitti’s comments given at a gathering of business leaders raised a lot of eyebrows, because this region isn’t used to that kind of straight talk on issues of race. He didn’t straddle the fence or submit to political correctness, as is the norm with many public officials.

If we are to make any significant headway decades after the landmark Brown ruling, it would require local and state leaders to confront the problems of race and poverty in public education. Addressing the missing gaps in our educational system cannot be done absent of tackling racial inequality and income inequality because children attending school in Detroit, should be guaranteed the same opportunities as their counterparts in Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and Grosse Pointe.  

“Income-based segregation between school districts is rising," the EdBuild report noted. "Today, high-poverty school districts enroll half of America's schoolchildren. Often these high poverty districts neighbor wealthier school systems where children have access to greater resources. ... When the families with means isolate themselves in wealthy districts, low-income children are left behind and income segregation between school districts increases.”