Equity & Diversity Opinion

Detroit’s Children Are Also Ours

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 11, 2016 5 min read
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Lack of funding, crumbling infrastructures, reduced faculties and administration, low salaries, corruption and poverty are all contributing factors to school failures. Now, the rise in the number of competing charter schools is either another causal factor for failures or the long sought solution. Just as it is not unusual for teachers to think of their sphere of influence as their classroom or school, we, as leaders, may limit our thinking to our local buildings or districts. But, policy makers and the media see public schools as one entity, and, to understand what has happened to us and what might happen, so should we.

What Hurts One of Us, Hurts Us All
The Detroit Public Schools holds an extreme example of what can happen in cities where industry leaves and poverty rises, where population nosedives and funding evaporates, and children remain in those schools. In no uncertain terms, regardless of the fraud and arrests (Leadership360), there are educators in Detroit who are giving their best every day. They find themselves handicapped working within a broken system. Their efforts are making a difference with graduation rates increasing but beneath that is a fundamental problem. Data released for the 103-2014 school year indicate 58% of students were chronically absent, meaning absent 15 days a year or more. The national average is 13% (Detroit Free Press).

Detroit is an extreme case, but many districts across the country face some level or aspect of what is more exaggerated in Detroit. Especially with a national election in play, the business of education will be tossed about with solutions from afar, which will, for the most part, have little or no feeling for the local issues we each face.

The Detroit Public Schools are hurting. You may recall last January that Detroit Public Schools made the news when teachers held “sick-outs” to call attention to the horrific conditions in the schools. Ninety-four of the city’s 97 schools had to be closed because of the absences. The physical state of the buildings was unimaginable. This fall, Time.com reported that 92% of the schools are now in full compliance with the city’s public health and safety codes. We are unsure of what the experience is for children and adults in the other 8%.

In June, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation bailing out the Detroit Public Schools. The legislation actually created a new school system, The Detroit Public School Community District, as a debt free new entity to educate the 47,000 students of Detroit. The old district remains to collect tax revenue and pay off previous debt. There is an ongoing debate about when the lowest performing schools might actually be closed. At the same time, the new legislation gave school boards the option of hiring non-certified teachers and allowed for penalties for the teachers who stage “sick-outs”. A fraud hotline number is found on posters in schools as they open for the new year. The Time.com article quotes parent, Arlyssa Heard, a member of 482Forward, a group of local parents who raise awareness about the state of the schools.

“My dream is that there is some way to take this decision out of the hands of politicians and put it in the hands of educators and parents. Those are the two groups that have the most vested in the school system.”

How can a system get this bad? What were the issues left unattended for years that led to this unacceptable state of facilities? Where were the voices? Was anyone listening or did all feel the loss of power as conditions slipped downward? These are the questions, not just for them, but for leaders everywhere.

Funding Sources
Children are unwitting victims of their zip code. Can’t we create a public school funding system that responds to the nation’s commitment to an educated populace? How can we make a difference? Wouldn’t that be a meritorious goal for America in the 21st century? According to 247wallstreet.com here is a comparison between one of the wealthiest and one of the poorest school districts in our country.

San Perlita Independent School District, Texas

    • Median household income: $16,384
    • Student enrollment: 291
    • State per pupil spending: $8,299
    • District per pupil spending: $11,124

Cold Spring Harbor Central School District, New York

    • Median household income: $182,153
    • Student enrollment: 1,977
    • State per pupil spending: $19,818
    • District per pupil spending: $27,203

Data glimpses rarely allow a complete examination of an issue but this data indicate that those who have more, receive more. Is this not the inequity that permeates our society and demands attention now? And for those who think charter schools or money following the child are THE answers, consider the implications of developing a whole new alternative system across the country. Is that easier than resolving the issues with funding the current system equitably?

All of us have heard the voices of colleagues in urban areas and poor schools calling out for attention to these funding inequities. Some of them are weary and hoarse. But, if we are truly educators for all children, our voices should be raised as strongly and as loudly as theirs. Yes, it seems the sick out call by educators in Detroit broke the problem open. But look at the conditions they and their students endured along the way.

For the rest of the nation, those who are not in such dire conditions, take a lesson from Detroit. Detroit’s problem ultimately is our problem. It can teach a lesson about patience and acceptance gone too far. It can teach a lesson about funding and use of funds. And it can serve as a reminder that all decisions, all of them, affect the children we serve. Whether it is about hiring uncertified teachers, or fixing crumbling infrastructures, the children are there. It might not be politically welcome, but we have right on our side. It is our job to speak up for the children and to join our voices with others who want to put the children above the politics.

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Photo by Wavebreak Media, Ltd. courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.