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Commentary: The future of Detroit schools

Roy Roberts, emergency manager of the Detroit Public schools for the last two years, is leaving. His contract ends in two weeks, and he says he isn’t interested in extending it.

You can hardly blame him. He is 74 and thanks to a successful career at General Motors, doesn‘t need the money. Roberts especially doesn‘t need more aggravation.

Being emergency manager of what is, in effect, a dying school system has meant 14 hour days and many angry people. There’s no way it could have meant anything else. His predecessor, Robert Bobb, was roundly hated, and whoever the governor appoints next will be too.

Yesterday, however, a lot of people said good things about Roy Roberts, including some he has fought with.

LaMar Lemmons, president of the school board, will never be happy about any emergency manager, since the presence of one effectively means all the elected board’s power has been effectively taken away. He’s been fighting all this.

But yesterday, asked about Roberts, Lemmons told a newspaper, “I always believed his concern and his heart was always in the right place, that he really cared about the kids.” Nobody ever disputed that.

Governor Snyder, who appointed Roberts, lavishly praised him yesterday, saying that, “He has been successful in restoring fiscal responsibility, including …balancing budgets.”  But that’s not quite true.

Roy Roberts did drastically reduce the schools’ deficit, cutting it from more than $300 million to $76 million. He did that by a combination of closing schools, ending contracts, and laying off and firing people.

Meanwhile, the district continues to shrink. Detroit Public Schools lost 20,000 more students in Roberts’ years. Now, there are only 53,000 left. That is fewer than one-third as many as there were in the year 2000. 

Everybody knows the drain will continue. This isn’t Roy Roberts’ fault. He claims that he has “changed the culture,“ in the district, which may be true as far as spending money goes.

But he failed to “fix” Detroit public schools, for one simple reason: Doing that would be impossible, without far more money. Detroiters are largely poor, and their city is on life support. There really isn’t enough revenue to fund schools at levels that make student success likely.

The state needs to step in and, in addition to effectively taking control of the public schools, provide adequate money to educate the children in them. It is our responsibility to do so.

What’s odd is that the schools are failing because, on this issue, Republicans in Lansing have the same idea many left-wing Detroit activists do, the fiction that Detroit is some kind of autonomous political entity, and the state has no right to interfere.

Republicans are willing to take power away from those who have made bad decisions, but want to pretend that in coming up with the money to fix things, Detroit should be entirely on its own. That is equally silly.

We are all in this together, and if children in Detroit can’t get a good education, everyone in Michigan is going to pay for it. Schools shape the next generations of adults. Not giving any kids a chance to succeed would be the greatest missed investment opportunity of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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