Wednesday, Nov 22, 2017
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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Detroit mayor’s next big challenge is getting schools on track

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    Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at the Duggan for Detroit reelection night party after winning the mayoral race against his opponent, state Sen. Coleman Young II.

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DETROIT — Mayor Mike Duggan, as expected, breezed to a re-election landslide this week over State Sen. Coleman Young II, who had little support and less funding.

Detroiters, the vast majority of whom are black, rejected blatantly racist appeals to “take back the motherland” late in the campaign by Mr. Young, a term-limited legislator who changed his name after paternity tests showed he was the out-of-wedlock son of Detroit’s first black mayor.

Detroit-Mayoral-Election

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks at the Duggan for Detroit reelection night party after winning the mayoral race against his opponent, state Sen. Coleman Young II.

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The result was not a surprise; Detroit’s energetic, 59-year-old can-do mayor had stunned the political world four years earlier by winning a majority in the primary on a write-in vote, with some scrawling “Duggan the white guy” on their ballots.

But what isn’t clear is if Mike Duggan can keep Detroit’s comeback momentum going. And the biggest hurdle of all may not be crime or the lack of jobs, though those are factors.

It is the schools.

The good news is that almost nobody four years ago would have dreamed the city would have made as much progress as it has. Every avenue in Detroit finally has working streetlights for the first time in decades.

Police, fire, and ambulance response times have been drastically shortened; a record number of derelict buildings were torn down, and the city has a small budget surplus.

But there are still big problems with the public schools, despite a bailout by the Michigan Legislature that enabled them to shed most of their debt.

Detroit’s mayor doesn’t run the schools — but last year he asked the lawmakers to create a Detroit Education Commission that would determine where any new public schools could open.

He and others were concerned about charter schools, some operated by for-profit companies, cannibalizing more desirable areas, and weakening the public schools.

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Mr. Duggan and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder agreed the Detroit schools needed $715 million to have a reasonable chance at succeeding in the next few years.

But GOP lawmakers refused to do that, which left the mayor fearing this would doom what is now known as the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

That’s because the vast majority of school funding in Michigan comes via a per-pupil “foundation grant,” currently $7,552 per student. If students leave the public schools for charter schools, the public schools lose their money.

And leave they have been. Fifteen years ago, DPS had 156,000 students on “count day.” This year, the number was 48,511.

Charter schools also get the foundation grant, but they are far less regulated than the public schools, and sometimes have shut down abruptly in midyear.

Perhaps as a result of chaos and limited resources, test scores for students in Detroit schools are the worst of any large city in the nation. Last year, only 6 percent of Detroit Public School Community District elementary school students were proficient in math; only 12 percent in reading.

High school scores were only slightly better.

What this means in practical terms is that there’s no way most middle-class parents with children will move into Detroit.

As long as that’s true, Detroit’s revival will be limited to young, hip urban professionals, and retirees; “the newly wed and almost dead,” as Kurt Metzger, the city’s best-known demographer puts it.

Mr. Metzger is now the mayor of tiny Pleasant Ridge, an older residential community two miles from Detroit’s border.

He believes Detroit’s population decline may have actually stopped — but agrees that unless and until people can have confidence enough to put their children in public schools, the city’s future is bound to be severely limited.

Fewer than half of all Michigan third graders are reading as well as they should be. The actual figure is 44.1 percent — down from 50 percent two years ago, according to the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress.

Math and science scores did show some slight improvement, something State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston called “exciting news.”

But overall math proficiency was barely 33.5 percent in eighth grade, which makes Mr. Whiston’s vow to make Michigan a “top 10 education state” in a decade seem hollow.

On top of that, Michigan now has an actual teacher shortage; the number of new teachers has dropped from 9,664 in 2004 to 3,696 last year.

Teachers and their allies blame this on a years-long campaign by Republicans to weaken teacher pay benefits, and the amount the state spends on education.

“If legislators want to know why there is a looming teacher shortage, they need look no further than their own actions,” said David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association. Not surprisingly, Republicans disagree.

But what does seem beyond doubt is that the funding model for public education in Michigan no longer works.

And until Michigan schools can again produce graduates who can compete in the modern economy, the state’s chances of regaining its former prosperity are likely to be slim — and none.

***

My last column had a missing decimal point regarding Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed’s fund-raising. The actual number is $1.6 million.

Jack Lessenberry, the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com.

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