Late last week, the state House passed a stopgap funding bill that gives nearly $50 million to the Detroit Public Schools.
That’s just enough money to see the flailing school district through to the end of this school year.
Governor Snyder’s proposed $715 million fix is still on the table. It would divide the district into two entities: an “Old Co.” that would use millage revenue to pay off the $515 million in debt, and a “New Co.” that would exist solely to educate students.
The cost to the state would be $71 million annually over the next 10 years for per-pupil funding.
David Arsen is a professor of Education Policy and K-12 Educational Administration at Michigan State University.
He can’t say definitively whether the legislation being assembled in Lansing will save DPS, but he has high hopes.
“A lot of hard, careful work went into it,” he says, “and I think it moves things in a positive direction.”
Aside from splitting the district in two, Arsen tells us this legislation would return control of the district to local governments.
“The district is now under emergency management, has been for a number of years. That has not worked out very well,” Arsen says.
It would also phase out the Educational Achievement Authority, a system that Arsen says “did not gather many supporters.” The EAA’s responsibilities would be shifted to Michigan’s School Reform Office.
Arsen tells us the legislation also includes language that would create a Detroit Education Commission, “an entity with some authority over both the district schools and the charter schools in Detroit.”
“The DEC is key,” he says, “because it provides some kind of coordination between these two education systems in the city, the charter system on the one hand and the district schools on the other. It’s a very chaotic situation now, no coordination between them."
"Detroit is the foremost example nationally of the adverse consequences of a poorly-regulated market," he says. "Choice is good, there will be choice in Detroit, there’ll be lots of choice in Detroit. The problem is that it’s not well-coordinated. There are neighborhoods with no schools, there are some neighborhoods with too many schools. The DEC is a step in the direction of trying to provide some coordination across these sectors.”
The crisis in Detroit’s public schools is getting the lion’s share of attention, but Detroit is hardly alone. There are 11 districts in Michigan marked for a preliminary financial review due to so many years of consecutive deficits.
Arsen explains that the state’s funding formula stipulates that districts lose money when students leave to go to school elsewhere, pushing many districts into a so-called “death spiral” towards deficit.
“All the money follows the kid, and the underlying issue is that when the child leaves, the revenues decline faster than the costs,” he says.
With enough enrollment decline, Arsen tells us districts come to a point when they either have to cut spending on those students left behind or dip into their fund balance.
“Most districts are doing both of those things,” he says. “It’s a hard, hard position for even the very best administrators.”
Compounding that issue, Arsen tells us that in many cases, it’s special education or poor students who are left behind.
These children are, “especially needy … and the state does not fully reimburse the additional cost for those children. So you’re not only losing kids, but the kids left behind are especially costly,” he says.
But now that the state seems to be acknowledging these issues and working to move forward, Arsen is optimistic.
“We really are in a good moment here,” Arsen says. “This legislation that is now pending in the Senate, a lot of hard work went into it. Smart people, dedicated people, different points of view, this is a kind of legislation that represents what state government should do. Find places where you can compromise, do the best you can, move things forward. This legislation does that. It’s in stark contrast to, for instance, the way the EAA was established, the way that the Emergency Manager Law was passed. This is really a step forward, and I have to congratulate both the policymakers and the interested parties who participated in the negotiations.”
David Arsen tells us more about the proposed legislature in our conversation above.