Inside Detroit’s Failing Public Schools
No public schools in the country are in as bad a crisis as those in Detroit. High school drop out rates are more than twice the national average. And teachers are striking over dangerously dilapidated buildings, low pay and inadequate resources. Detroit has closed more than two-thirds of its buildings since 2000. Leaving many of them boarded up, abandoned and ripe for looting. With the district more than three and a half billion dollars in debt and students leaving for charter schools in the suburbs, there’s no easy fix. So, how did we get here? “Detroit. Birthplace of the production line and the new idea that almost everybody could have a car.” Detroit’s population boomed at the turn of the 20th century. And the city pushed its borders farther and farther out. The population, 285,000 in 1900, hit one and a half million 30 years later. That expansion saw 180 new schools built to accommodate the growing demand for education. Gilded age schools became the centers of the city’s new neighborhoods. Detroit public schools saw nearly 300,000 students walk through its doors by 1966. But Detroit couldn’t sustain the pace of growth. And nearly as fast as it grew, Detroit collapsed. “We hereby officially request the immediate deployment of federal troops into Michigan to assist state and local authorities in reestablishing law and order in the city of Detroit-” Like many American cities, Detroit saw its families and tax revenue moved to the suburbs. White flight increased as racial desegregation went into effect. And with auto plants relocating to the suburbs, families followed the jobs. From 1961 to 1971 more than 50,000 white students left the district. The flight from Detroit robbed schools of badly needed resources and lead to 6 teacher strikes in 25 years. Declining enrollment was compounded by financial mismanagement. “Capital that is raised to repair school buildings in detroit is often misused One big example is South Western high school. their swimming pool was shut down in the 1990’s I believe because it couldn’t pass the health inspection. The district allocated a significant amount of money to repairing the pool. The construction work was so poor that they ended up closing the pool again after it was reopened.” This has only gotten worse in recent decades. From 1999 to 2012, more than 100,000,000 dollars was spent upgrading schools that were closed within a few years. From a high of 380 schools in 1975, only 97 are open today. Closing a school can rapidly accelerate the decline of neighborhoods in a city that is already hollowing out. Property values drop, kids travel longer distances to school, and communities fall into disrepair. “When you tell people that you go to a Detroit public school they always pity you.” “From my house to Western, it’s a two hour bus ride. Two hours just to get to school. I wake up at 5:30 am every single morning.” “It is so hard trying to find a book and then you can’t take your book home, so it’s really hard to do your homework if you don’t have internet access. For the ones who don’t have internet access, they just can’t do their homework.” Today, less than 50,000 students attend Detroit public schools. Detroit is showing signs of improvment and a vibrant city is reemerging. A public school hasn’t closed in two years. But without a lasting fix, a complete turn around seems all but impossible. As Michigan’s law makers construct a long term solution for the district’s financial problems, the system remains under state control.