The Future of Detroit Schools, and Dave Bing

By Sean Cavanagh — May 08, 2009 2 min read
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After completing a legendary pro basketball career for the Detroit Pistons, Dave Bing left to see out the twilight of his career with professional teams in other cities. Then he did something unusual, given the socioeconomic forces that have been battering the Motor City for decades: He came back.

As Detroit’s population and economic wealth evaporated, and many residents fled for surrounding suburbs, Bing returned to the city after his playing days and founded an ultimately successful steel company. He became active in the community, on issues such as neighborhood revitalization, as his business grew. Bing has traced the origins of his civic involvement partly to the frustration and sadness he felt about the event that drove many Detroiters out: the city’s horrific 1967 riots, in which more than 40 people were killed. (Here’s a good profile of Bing written by a native Detroiter, for ESPN.)

Now Bing has a chance to shape the troubled city, and its schools, as a political insider. On May 9, he won a special election to become Detroit’s mayor, a seat he will hold until at least a follow-up election later this year, but possibly for a full term. Bing was sometimes criticized during his campaign against election opponent Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr., for a lack of specifics. He will face a host of daunting challenges across city government, perhaps none greater than those plaguing the city’s 95,000-student school system.

Last year, after Detroit school officials revealed that they faced a deficit of more than $400 million, state schools Superintendent Michael Flanagan declared the district to be in a state financial emergency. The city schools were placed under state oversight; the state-appointed financial overseer, Robert Bobb (formerly a top administrator in the D.C. government and president of that city’s school board) has announced plans to cut hundreds of jobs and close schools to get spending under control. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently referred to her state’s job losses and overall economic plight as “our own, slow Katrina.”

I recently visited Detroit for a story that’s coming out this week on a curriculum, designed by researchers at the University of Michigan and in place in more than 20 city schools, which seeks to build scientific-reasoning skills among elementary students in urban environments. It’s shown positive results. During my visit, the school system’s financial woes were an unavoidable topic. One of the teachers I interviewed, who has embraced the new science curriculum, received her layoff notice last month.

How will Dave Bing cope with these challenges? Some observers, such as the authors of this Detroit News editorial, are arguing that the schools need to pursue a broad expansion of charter schools, as well as the use of merit pay for teachers and other measures. Bing (see a photo to the right from his playing days, circa 1967) has voiced support for charter schools in his campaign. The head of the AFT in Detroit, however, has voiced opposition to merit pay, according to the editorial, which also says that contract negotiations between the city and the union are about to get under way.

What steps are necessary to improve the financial stability, and the achievement of students, in Detroit’s schools? Is there any reason that charter school growth cannot occur in Detroit, as it has in other cities? Or would the city’s economic deterioration overwhelm efforts to overhaul the education system?

In sum: What advice would you give to Dave Bing?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.