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Opinion: State takeover hurt Detroit's public schools

Christian Barnard

Skeptics have argued it for years, and it seems they’re right — states shouldn’t manage school districts.

A new study commissioned by the Detroit Public Schools Community District school board and released mid-November confirmed that the 15-year period that DPSCD was largely governed by state officials rather than a local school board was actually just a “costly mistake” — the district’s dire financial situation and poor student performance didn’t see much improvement at all. 

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, talks about the proposed closing of Communication and Media Arts High School during a conversation with parents and community members at the school on Nov. 19.

This should come as no surprise. State takeover successes aren’t consistent at improving overall district operations — and it was unlikely at the outset that state bureaucrats were going to do better than local leaders at finding some secret sauce that could put Detroit students and district management on a better trajectory. Now that Detroit is back under the control of an elected school board, local and state leaders need to have a clear understanding of their roles.

The board’s job should be prioritizing the aspects of academics and fiscal management that previous state leaders failed to address — such as actually getting the district out of debt and focusing on improving classroom instruction. On the state side, Michigan’s school funding formula needs to be rectified so that disadvantaged students, which would include 86% of all students in Detroit, are treated fairly. 

The DPSCD school board undoubtedly has its hands full. Declining revenues brought about by declining student enrollment requires that the district appropriately consolidate operations to control costs and eliminate debt. It also requires academic programs to be fine-tuned so that they’re competitive with neighborhood charter schools. It’s no secret that charters are part of the reason Detroit’s district schools are seeing shrinking enrollment, but it’s hard to blame families for selecting them — given their largely superior academic performance compared to nearby district schools. 

Fortunately, DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has signaled that he intends to give those charters a run for their money by improving district programs and winning families back. His plans include strategies to improve attendance, sell off excess school space and renew the focus on improving academics. That’s precisely the attitude the district needs. Detroit needs a determination to do better, not to restrict school choice. 

Now that Michigan lawmakers have backed off doing the school board’s job for them, they can finally support Detroit by fixing the state’s resource allocation, particularly for disadvantaged students. While Michigan has increased its basic per-pupil funding in recent years, funding meant to provide additional resources for at-risk and low-income students has declined.

More generally, districts throughout the state see significant variations in per-pupil funding that simply aren’t related to student needs but, rather, according to historical funding patterns and property wealth. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should recognize this as a major problem. All students should be funded fairly, and more dollars should follow the students with higher needs. 

Earlier this year Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pushed for just that. But her efforts didn’t pay off, leaving funding for different types of high-need students again at the mercy of the Legislature’s yearly appropriations decisions — which have often treated high-need students unfairly. It also puts districts like Detroit in a difficult circumstance where they can’t make reliable spending plans to serve those students. 

But it’s only a temporary setback. These problems will persist, and adopting a fairer funding system will have to be a top priority in future legislative sessions as those problems become more pronounced. 

There’s no silver bullet that will fix all of Detroit’s K-12 education problems. But clearly, state takeover created more problems than it solved. But the things that have worked — such as expanded school choice — need the support of a fairer funding system and an empowered local school board that’s unafraid to rise to the challenge. That’s what Detroit’s families deserve. 

Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation and a Young Voices Education Fellow.