School & District Management

No Easy Answers

By Caroline Hendrie — November 17, 1999 23 min read
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Shortly after slipping into the driver’s seat of the Motor City’s schools last spring, Detroit’s newly created school board came close to getting run off the road. Convened for their first public meeting, the board’s seven members at first found it impossible to proceed amid the shouts of protesters opposed to the takeover law that had led to their appointment two weeks earlier. It was only after Chairman Freman Hendrix ordered police to “have the hecklers removed—now,” that things quieted down and the board was able to get on with its business.

Since then, the meetings have gotten calmer. Yet the anger expressed during that tumultuous first meeting has not gone away. At its root are questions that have divided Detroit—and communities across the nation—throughout the course of this century: Who should be in charge of the public schools, and how should they be run?

The answers the city has settled on during the past 100 years have often mirrored broader trends in how Americans, especially those who live in cities, have chosen to organize and govern their schools.

These have ranged from Progressive-era innovations in the early part of the century to experiments with decentralization, desegregation, and school restructuring during the past 30 years. “Detroit participated in (and in some cases led) virtually every important reform effort involving urban schools,” the education historian Jeffrey Mirel writes in a recent paper published by the Brookings Institution.

Yet in other respects, the story of Detroit’s schools is inseparable from the history of the city itself. As interest groups and individuals have competed to forge new frameworks for governing public education, they have often been guided as much by the circumstances of their time and place as by forces at work in the nation at large.

These economic, social, and political conditions have exerted powerful influence over how schools function and how students learn.

Motown’s schools rose with their city in the early decades of the century to become one of the finest education systems in the country, only to slip into severe decline in later years as the city itself descended into urban decay and racial unrest.

In the midst of these challenges, the school system repeatedly resorted to dramatic shakeups in the way the schools were governed. Yet a century of experimentation in Detroit and elsewhere has shown that shifts in governance often disappoint those hoping for tidy solutions.

“We’re looking for structural panaceas and political quick fixes to very complex issues,” says Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. “Tinkering with the structure might be useful, but that in itself is not going to bring about the changes that people want.”

At the turn of this century, as automotive pioneers were giving birth to an industry that would transform the nation, an elite corps of school reformers here was plotting changes of its own.

Since the official establishment of Detroit’s public schools in 1842, they had been run almost as a collection of village schools. Each of the city’s political subdivisions, known as wards, maintained substantial control over its own schools. For most of the 19th century, those wards sent “inspectors” to sit on a central school board, which expanded as the city added wards.

That method of governance was typical of urban schools until about the 1890s, notes David B. Tyack, a professor of education and history at Stanford University. But around then, groups of reformers, typically drawn from their communities’ social and business elites, began pressing for change.

“Defenders of the ward system argued that grassroots interest in the schools and widespread participation in school politics was healthy, indeed necessary, in large cities,” Tyack writes in his 1974 book The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. But, he adds, “centralizers saw in decentralization only corruption, parochialism, and vestiges of an outmoded village mentality.”

In Detroit, a cadre of upper-crust reformers, many of them women, launched a campaign in 1902 aimed at overhauling the governance structure and ousting the incumbent superintendent.

As in many other cities, a central goal was to replace the sprawling, ward-based school board with a smaller one elected by voters citywide. The reformers focused heavily on the alleged character flaws of the ward-based politicians—including the ties some of them had to liquor interests.

“The conflict in Detroit centered almost entirely on who should rule, not on specific policies or practices,” Mirel writes in The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-81, published in 1993.

In 1911, the reformers won a narrow majority on the ward-based board, only to lose it two years later. But in that same year, 1913, they persuaded the Michigan legislature to pass a bill creating a seven-member, nonpartisan board elected to staggered, six-year terms. In 1916, Detroit voters overwhelmingly ratified the move in a citywide referendum.

One of the new board’s first moves was to consolidate power in the superintendent. It also got rid of the committees through which the old, 21-member board had regularly circumvented the schools chief.

Such steps reflected a national trend from 1900 to 1930 to transfer control of the public schools from community-based lay people to university-trained education professionals. In Detroit, the shift was viewed as critical to enabling the schools to keep pace with changes in the fast-growing city.

In the first three decades of the century, as Detroit established itself as the axis of America’s automobile industry, the city’s population mushroomed from 285,000 to nearly 1.6 million people. Finding enough teachers and space for the children of the new arrivals, many of them from Eastern and Southern Europe, was a formidable challenge. From fewer than 30,000 youngsters in 1900, K-12 enrollment swelled to 235,000 by 1930, although many students had to attend only part time for lack of space.

From the advent of the small school board until the onset of the Great Depression, the city saw relatively little political dissension over the basic priorities of expanding and adapting the system to accommodate the enrollment boom, Mirel said in a recent interview. Superintendent Frank Cody, named to the position in 1919, served as the district’s chief for what today seems an extraordinary 23 years. If the Detroit schools ever enjoyed a golden age, Mirel suggests, that was it.

“Every major interest group in the city strongly supported efforts to provide a high-quality, ‘modern’ public education to the children of the city,” he says. “This support gave Detroit school leaders the unprecedented opportunity to create one of the great urban school systems of the 20th century.”

But the consensus crumbled under the economic burdens of the Depression. As unemployment soared and relief lines lengthened, the city schools faced a staggering fiscal crisis.

Business leaders soon broke ranks with school officials, chastising them for moving too slowly to bring spending in line with the blighted economy.

Despite their reluctance, district officials retrenched in the early 1930s, cutting the budget by constricting teacher pay, halting construction, increasing the size of classes, and eliminating programs that critics decried as superfluous.

During those lean times, the nascent Detroit Federation of Teachers, at first operating underground, began trying to influence school board elections, with limited success. That activity on the part of the fledgling American Federation of Teachers affiliate aroused fierce criticism in the business community.

After the country entered World
War II, Detroit emerged as an arms-producing powerhouse. That enhanced the clout of business and labor alike, which continued to clash over school funding and curricular issues.

As its ranks swelled during the 1940s, the dft increasingly tried to influence the outcome of school board elections and decisions, with limited success. Yet in 1947, the union came out on top in a struggle over salaries, which the union insisted must take precedence over building projects aimed at catching up with years of neglect. The district capitulated after teachers threatened to walk out.

Mary Ellen Riordan, the president of the union from 1960 through 1981, views the near-strike as a major step in the dft’s eventual emergence as the most powerful interest group in Detroit school politics. “That was the first big watershed,” she says.

Business-backed groups reacted with outrage to the labor action and the resulting pay hikes, and in 1948, state lawmakers passed legislation outlawing strikes by public employees.

Another effect of the showdown with the teachers was a growing sense that the district needed fiscal autonomy to set funding priorities as it saw fit.

"[T]he power of the mayor and City Council over the activities of the school district effectively made the public school system a department of the city,” the Citizens Research Council of Michigan noted in a 1990 report.

After vigorous lobbying by school officials and municipal leaders, the legislature granted the district financial independence in 1949. That governance milestone freed the school board from relying on the city to approve both its budgets and borrowing requests. And it made the capacity to deliver votes, rather than wield influence behind the scenes, of greater value in the political equation.

The shift served to bolster the political fortunes of various interest groups in the city, including labor unions and the city’s growing population of African-Americans.

Drawn from the South by plentiful wartime jobs, blacks climbed from just 9 percent of Detroit’s population in 1940 to more than 16 percent in 1950. At the same time, many Southern whites were migrating to the city, fueling tensions that burst into outright conflict during a devastating race riot in 1943.

Racial strains sometimes ignited in the schools throughout the 1940s. After the 1943 riot, groups representing African-Americans stepped up their pressure on school officials to address their grievances, which included a dearth of black school employees, a pattern of unofficial segregation, and the rundown condition of schools in black neighborhoods.

On some of those issues, notably that of facilities, black leaders were sometimes at odds with the dft, whose overriding concern was teacher pay. But as the decade progressed, African-Americans increasingly found common cause with the federation, as well as other labor unions and liberal organizations that exerted influence over education politics.

In the late ‘40s, those minority, labor, and liberal groups joined forces in a failed attempt to oust the incumbent schools chief.

Out of that effort grew Save Our Schools, or sos, an organization that brought together the teachers’ federation, other labor leaders, black activists, parents, and various civic groups in efforts to increase funding, end racial discrimination, and expand community control of the schools. Between 1949 and 1961, according to Mirel, 11 of 14 candidates backed by Save Our Schools won seats on the school board.

During the 1950s, city dwellers throughout the country headed for the suburbs, and Detroiters were no exception. The exodus drained the city of many white, middle-class families who had been a fountainhead of political support for the schools.

Blacks, by contrast, continued to flock to the city that perhaps more than any other stood for high-paying jobs. The number of blacks rose by more than 60 percent during the decade, while the white population fell by nearly a quarter. By 1960, the city’s overall population had dropped to 1.67 million from 1.85 million a decade earlier, but the proportion of African-Americans had jumped from 16 percent to 29 percent.

Meanwhile, the suburbs, collectively home to more than 2 million people by 1960, had overtaken the city in total population.

For the schools, one consequence of the demographic shifts was a sharp drop in property values and a resulting decline in the district’s tax base. Another was a downward shift in the socioeconomic status of families using the system.

Race began to assume greater importance in the district’s political dynamics. Buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 decision striking down intentional school segregation, black leaders pressed harder for integration and elimination of unequal distribution of resources. In 1955, an African-American was elected to the Detroit school board for the first time.

Besides racial issues, the big challenge facing school leaders was coping with rapid enrollment growth while the tax base was shrinking. Despite the city’s overall population decline, the post-World War II baby boom pushed enrollment up from 232,230 in 1950 to 285,304 a decade later.

The growth continued until 1966, when enrollment peaked at just under 300,000. By then, the racial profile had shifted sharply, with whites making up only about 40 percent of students.

As district leaders turned to the electorate for tax increases and bond issues to keep up with rising enrollment and declining property values, voters proved harder to persuade.

In one such referendum, in April 1963, the resounding defeat of both a proposed tax increase and a school construction bond issue left the district facing the loss of nearly a third of its operating budget.

“Detroit schools were in real danger,” writes Donald W. Disbrow in his 1968 book Schools for an Urban Society.

School officials went back to city voters the following November, seeking only to renew the existing school tax rather than raise it, and this time succeeded. But less than a year later, in September 1964, voters again turned thumbs down to a $75 million bond issue for school construction.

It was during those elections that clear signs of a color line emerged, Mirel says. Whites, who still outnumbered blacks in the voting booths though not in the schools, began rejecting spending measures at far higher rates than in the past.

Fueling the trend were race-related clashes starting in the late 1950s over school boundaries, conflicts that were to peak in the busing struggles of the 1970s. Besides alienating whites, the disputes helped turn a minority of blacks against school revenue increases.

“These elections signaled the beginning of a sea change in educational politics in the Motor City,” Mirel says of the 1963 and 1964 spending votes. “In the 1930s, the business community abandoned its commitment to expanding and improving the Detroit schools. Similarly, during the racial struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s, large numbers of the white working class and a small but vocal segment of the black community would essentially do the same.”

But if voters were exerting pressure on school leaders to keep spending down, an increasingly militant teaching corps was pushing in the opposite direction.

For decades, Detroit educators had divided their loyalty between the dft, which had strong ties to organized labor, and the local affiliate of the
National Education Association, which saw itself more as a professional organization than a trade union. While the two groups were active in the political arena over the years, teachers did not collectively bargain for their contracts with the district.

But beginning in 1963, encouraged by the success of New York City’s aft affiliate in gaining collective bargaining rights two years earlier, the dft started pressing the school board to let Detroit teachers hold a similar election. After the union threatened to strike, school leaders agreed to hold an election in May of 1964.

Intense competition between the dft and the Detroit Education Association ensued. In the end, the federation garnered about 60 percent of the vote, becoming the union designated to negotiate for all the district’s teachers.

The teachers wasted no time in exercising their newfound clout. In 1965, the dft extracted a sizable wage increase from the cash-strapped district. It did the same in 1967, after a two-week strike.

Like the teachers, African-American activists became more assertive in the middle and late ‘60s, as students joined community groups in protesting conditions in the schools.

By 1967, the year of traumatic race riots in the city that were among the worst in any U.S. city this century, the goal of transforming the system primarily through integration had fallen out of favor with a growing segment of the city’s black residents.

Instead, some leaders advanced the view that unequal education for African-Americans could be remedied only through black control of the schools. Out of that movement came the push for community control, which culminated in a plan to decentralize the system in the early 1970s.

Looking back, some see the late 1960s as a turning point in the school system’s fortunes. Before then, says John W. Porter, a former Michigan state schools chief who was the superintendent in Detroit from 1989 to 1991, the city generally benefited from concerned and supportive parents and community members, motivated students, and an effective, dedicated staff.

But after that period, he says, such conditions became harder to come by, and the quality of leadership in the district faltered.

“Governance is fragile when the socioeconomic conditions shift, and that’s what happened in Detroit,” Porter says.

By the end of the 1960s, Detroit’s schools were in many ways unrecognizable from those of 1916. Yet the basic governance structure established that year—a seven-member school board elected at large—still endured more than half a century later.

That would change during the turbulent events of the next few years.

In April 1969, state Sen. Coleman A. Young—a former union leader who in 1974 would become the city’s first black mayor—introduced legislation that called for creating regional school boards in the city, while preserving a central board with a mixture of subdistrict and at-large representatives.

Four months later, Gov. William Milliken signed the bill, which called for abolishing the seven-member board on Jan. 1, 1971.

The lame-duck school board then turned its attention to carving out the new subdistricts. Rejecting the pleas of both those who wanted to maximize black control in the regions and those who favored some largely white subdistricts, the board made racial integration its foremost concern.

On April 7, 1970, at a meeting that Mirel calls “probably the most tumultuous in the history of the school system,” the school board approved a plan aimed not only at creating racially integrated regions, but also at desegregating the city’s high schools.

The outcry was deafening, and weeks later, the Michigan legislature repealed the decentralization law outright, and hence the need for the controversial subdistricts.

Young promptly drew up an alternative bill to create eight regions with their own five-member boards. The central board would include the chairman of each regional board, as well as five members elected at large. The bill entrusted the delicate matter of regional boundaries to a gubernatorial commission and effectively nullified the city school board’s desegregation plan. Gov. Milliken made the bill law in July 1970.

The following month, the four liberal school board members who supported the desegregation plan fell prey to a recall effort. Two weeks later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the state and city school board to desegregate the system. The suit, Milliken v. Bradley, would make the federal courts a major player in governing the district until 1989.

After the governance change, the school board that took office in January 1971 confronted the district’s worst fiscal crisis since the Depression.

Between 1968 and 1972, voters rejected six requests for tax renewals or increases. The tide finally turned in the fall of 1973, but only after the legislature had empowered the board to impose an income tax without the voters’ go-ahead. Voters then approved two millage proposals in the 1973-74 school year in exchange for repeal of that unpopular income tax. But the district remained on precarious financial footing, in part because of renewed demands by teachers for higher pay.

The budget problems were exacerbated by debate over desegregation. During the 1971-72 school year, the judge in the Milliken case mandated a sweeping desegregation plan involving not only Detroit but also 52 surrounding suburban districts. That order was later scaled back to the city alone by a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Anti-busing anger exploded, and often translated into opposition to spending measures.

Meanwhile, conflict with employee unions became a serious problem. Blaming educators for black students’ academic problems, school leaders who had emerged from the community-control movement were determined to make employees more accountable. Throughout the early 1970s, the central and regional boards clashed with the dft over efforts to do so.

“It all related to the central issue of developing the concept that teachers had some direct responsibility for student achievement, and as a result of that, teachers could be evaluated based on student outcomes,” says Arthur Jefferson, the district’s superintendent from 1975 to 1989.

The tension boiled over in the fall of 1973, when the teachers staged a 43-day strike, largely over accountability issues. The teachers prevailed, winning a large wage increase and effectively relegating accountability to the back burner.

But the strike was quickly followed by a racially charged dispute over an employee residency requirement the central board adopted in March 1974. The dft and the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors came out on top after challenging the policy in court, but not before the fight had further poisoned the relationship between district leaders and employees.

For administrators, recalls Stuart C. Rankin, who was deputy superintendent when he left the district a decade ago after 36 years, the fragmented nature of governance during the decentralization era proved frightening. “The superintendent of schools had a circus,” he says. “It was a very complex and rather strange time.”

In the schools, meanwhile, conditions deteriorated, as violence rose and test scores dropped. Those problems contributed to political disenchantment with decentralization.

“By 1978, opposition to decentralization was widespread,” Mirel notes.

Once again, the stage was set for a turn of the governance wheel.

That change came in 1981, when state lawmakers enacted legislation requiring a referendum in the city on recentralizing the system. Residents voted resoundingly to abandon the regional boards, and a new central board of 11 members soon took office, with seven members elected from subdistricts and four chosen by voters citywide.

The schools that the new board took over continued to be hobbled by poor academic performance and violence. Many of the district’s schools—showpieces in the ‘teens and ‘20s, were falling apart. Enrollment had been shrinking for years, and was about 85,000 students lower than its 1966 peak.

Against the backdrop of a severe recession that hit the auto industry with a vengeance, the city’s new school leaders confronted fiscal pressures as acute as those of a decade before. Although the political climate for tax increases had improved, the property-tax base continued to shrink.

“Detroit was no different than Chicago, and New York, and Philadelphia in that there were constant financial issues, and we tried to deal with them as best we could,” Jefferson recalls.

The budget shortfalls that started in the late ‘70s had mounted to a cumulative debt of $160 million a decade later. The sizable salary increases granted to teachers, who shored up their bargaining position with strikes in 1982 and 1987, were a primary reason for the red ink. The union argued that the raises were essential to prevent teaching talent from flocking to the better-paying suburbs.

In retrospect, says Jefferson, “in some of those contract negotiations, we probably went too far in terms of what we could afford because we were trying so hard to be equitable and fair to our teachers.”

Given the chronic fiscal problems, voters were receptive in 1988 when a slate of four candidates pledging to balance the books and devolve power to individual schools sought seats on the school board.

Much of their campaign focused on an attention-grabbing issue that attracted criticism from state officials as well: the practice of some board members of traveling first class at public expense and of being chauffeured by school employees in district- owned cars.

The reform-minded candidates, known as the hope team, trounced their four incumbent opponents.

Under the leadership of the new board and interim Superintendent Porter, the district got its fiscal house in order after voters approved a tax increase and bond issue in the fall of 1989. Then, in 1991, with the hiring of a new superintendent, the board sought to implement changes, including school-based management and more specialized schools.

But the effort fell apart after the dft, which had initially supported the 1988 reform candidates, switched gears in 1992.

“They started to do things that we just couldn’t live with,” John M. Elliott, the president of the dft since 1981, says of those board members.

Three of the four original hope candidates lost their seats, and the reconstituted board turned away from its predecessor’s agenda for change.

In the ensuing years, Detroit school leaders came under growing attack for the district’s management practices and lagging educational performance. Citing low student test scores and high dropout rates, Michigan Gov. John Engler put forward a proposal in 1997 that would have opened the way for the state to take over the district.

The idea made little headway in the legislature. But early this year, the Republican governor resurrected the idea in a revised form, pushing a plan to shift control of the 174,000-student Detroit schools to Mayor Dennis W. Archer, a Democrat.

After heated debate last winter and spring, lawmakers approved a measure restoring a seven-member board, with six seats appointed by the mayor and the seventh filled by the state superintendent.

The “reform board,” chaired by Deputy Mayor Hendrix, took office in late March.

The board’s chief responsibilities are to name a chief executive officer, who is entrusted with nearly all the powers usually vested in a school board, and to approve a strategic plan. During the search for a permanent schools chief, an interim ceo, a former president of Wayne State University, David Adamany, was tapped to run the district under a one-year contract. Detroit voters will decide in five years whether to keep the new governance scheme.

The new arrangement was loosely modeled on the 1995 governance change in Chicago that gave a small, mayorally appointed school board and a ceo extraordinary new powers to run the schools. The two cities are among a handful in which mayors have assumed control of their schools in recent years.

As in other cities, Detroit’s new governance plan has drawn fire from those who say it disenfranchises city voters by stripping the elected school board of power. Hendrix acknowledges that the complaint has resonance in a city where the vast majority of voters and more than 90 percent of public school students are black. Still, he and other supporters of the change say citizens can now hold the mayor accountable at election time.

“We have extraordinary problems here,” Hendrix says, “and we need to give someone the authority to do what needs to be done.”

Whether the latest arrangement succeeds will depend on many factors, including the relationship the city’s new school leaders forge with educators and parents. As the century draws to a close, it’s an open question whether lasting improvements are in store for a system whose status as a beacon of excellence has long since slipped into history.

“The number-one problem we face,” says Porter, “is not whether you produce some reforms, but whether you can sustain those reforms.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as No Easy Answers


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