Post: Detroit’s unacceptable schools

Washington Post Editorial Board

Children who go to school in Detroit face conditions that are inexcusable. Not just buckled floors, moldy walls and rodent infestations: There are also the days of missed instruction because of teacher sick-outs and the millions of dollars of crippling debt that rob classrooms of needed resources. Student achievement ranks among the nation’s worst. The entire system, not just the physical plant, is in need of drastic overhaul.

The problems of Detroit schools got new national attention after the teachers union there filed a lawsuit arguing that physical conditions were so unhealthy and unsafe that the fundamental rights of students to a “minimally adequate education” were being violated. The children affected are mainly poor and mostly African American. The suit demands the ouster of state emergency manager Darnell Earley. On Tuesday, he announced he would step down at the end of the month.

Earley, who had previously presided over the city of Flint and its now lead-contaminated water system, was but the latest in a succession of emergency managers put in place by the state in response to the system’s mismanagement and broken finances. Their lack of success has prompted some to call for the return of the 45,000-student school system to local control. That’s understandable but probably not constructive; it was the incompetence and corruption of local officials that prompted the state to get involved in the first place.

The system’s problems now are beyond the ability of local officials to solve without state help.

The massive debt, much of it in pension liabilities, translates to about US$1,100 per student being spent on debt service rather than classroom needs. The system is faced with the prospect of going broke by April, which would also affect other Michigan school districts, since the state is constitutionally responsible to cover many debts.

The best way out seems to be a legislative package put forward by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. He would create a community school district to run the schools, leaving the current district just to collect property taxes and pay down the debt. Under the plan, the state would provide US$715 million over about 10 years to cover US$515 million in operating debt and US$200 million in expenses, including repairs to school buildings. A board appointed by the governor and the Detroit mayor would run the new district, including hiring a superintendent.

The plan faces some opposition, including from lawmakers outside Detroit who are not keen on having to bail out the city’s system. But no one should find it acceptable to have children consigned to schools where they have to worry about rats and leaking ceilings – and where, not coincidentally, not much learning is going on.

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