Walkout Seen as Further Blow to Dwindling District

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While striking Detroit teachers remained on the picket lines last week and district administrators conceded they couldn’t keep schools open without them, parents, community leaders, and experts pondered a more long-term problem: Would this latest crisis accelerate the student exodus from the city’s already withering school system?

Before the standoff with the Detroit Federation of Teachers began, district officials were braced to lose 9,000 students from last year’s roster of 129,000. Now, district and city leaders expect the drop for the new school year to be even more severe.

“We are worried that our projections for declining enrollment are going to go up stratospherically as a result of this strike, and we can’t afford it,” said Lekan Oguntoyinbo, the spokesman for the Detroit district.

Only 27,000 children—about 20 percent of the expected number—showed up for the first day of school last week as teachers picketed, Mr. Oguntoyinbo said. The low turnout, in part, prompted the district to cancel classes while negotiations continued with the 9,500-member teachers’ union.

With every student who leaves permanently, state dollars disappear, further damaging the district’s precarious financial situation.

District officials estimate that every lost student costs about $10,000 in state and federal funding, which could cause the current $105 million shortfall in the $1.4 billion budget to balloon even more.

“Detroit has been in a death spiral, and all this strike does is accelerate it,” said David N. Plank, a senior fellow at the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in Lansing. “To even try to recover from this, the district will have to close more schools, lay off teachers, upset parents and neighborhoods where they close schools, and still they won’t be able to catch up with this.”

Few Options

Since the late 1990s, charter schools and open-enrollment policies in neighboring districts have siphoned roughly 50,000 students from the city schools, making Detroit the fastest-shrinking urban school system in the nation. Families with children have also left the city in large numbers as the American automobile industry has declined. ("Detroit Schools Struggle to Stem Student Loss," July 12, 2006.)

Every day the strike continues and schools remain closed further diminishes people’s trust in the district’s ability to deliver instruction and drives more of them away, one community leader said last week.

“Parents naturally are going to look for other options and their faith in the school system is going to be compromised if this continues,” said N. Charles Anderson, the president of the Detroit Urban League, who served on the school board in the late 1990s.

But many Detroit parents may find themselves stranded, said Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Lansing-based Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a statewide charter school organization. Mr. Quisenberry said that most of the 41 charter schools operating inside Detroit were already full.

“Our schools are definitely getting an increased number of calls from Detroit parents, but most of them can do little more than add names to their already long waiting lists,” he said.

Michigan’s law that authorized the creation of charter schools—or public school academies, as they are called in the state—set a statewide cap on the number of charters that could be authorized by each of four entities: universities, local school districts, regional school districts, and community colleges. Universities and one community college run by a Native American tribe have been the only viable charter authorizers, which has kept the publicly funded but largely independent schools to 150 statewide, Mr. Quisenberry said.

‘Parallel System’?

Both Mr. Quisenberry and Harrison Blackmond, the president of Detroit’s chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national organization that supports school choice, including charter schools, for low-income African-Americans, believe that the situation in Detroit should demand that the debate over allowing more charter schools to open be renewed. So far, though, that has not happened.

Still, the two charter school advocates say the time is overdue for Detroit to consider a radical overhaul of its public schools.

“Maybe we ought to be looking at what New Orleans has done and figure out if we can build a parallel system to the one that already exists here in Detroit, but doesn’t have all of these seemingly insurmountable issues,” said Mr. Blackmond, referring to the system of charter and state-run schools that have opened in that city since Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s not fair to the thousands of parents in Detroit right now who feel trapped and are tired of being resigned to having schools that don’t work,” he added.

In fact, Mr. Quisenberry wrote an opinion piece recently in the Detroit News making the same suggestion.

Mr. Anderson, the Urban League president, doesn’t think charters are a solution for Detroit. The answer, he said, is strong leadership.

“Right now, I’m not really seeing much in the way of [leadership],” he said.

Mr. Plank, the education professor, agreed that state leaders—namely, the governor and state lawmakers—must bear the responsibility of fixing Detroit’s battered school system once the strike is resolved.

“The long-term, ongoing problem for Detroit is a structural one based on how the state funds schools,” said Mr. Plank, referring to Michigan’s funding formula, in which state money follows students wherever they enroll. “Detroit has been losing students at too fast a pace to keep up, and it can’t cut its way out of this problem.”

But with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, locked in a tight battle for re-election with Republican challenger Dick DeVos, any meaningful intervention from the state is unlikely before November, Mr. Plank said.

“Unfortunately for the children of this school district,” he said, “this is not an issue in which anyone can gain politically.”

Vol. 26, Issue 03, Pages 5, 21

Published in Print: September 13, 2006, as Walkout Seen as Further Blow to Dwindling District
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