Narrative Trumps Facts When Reporting on Detroit Public Schools

A case study, one of many

A Detroit Public Schools teacher who lives in Novi was the basis of an article in a suburban newspaper that inaccurately portrayed Detroit Public Schools as being neglected by policymakers and taxpayers when compared to suburban schools. The article appeared in the same week the Legislature approved a $617 million bailout of DPS, which included $150 million extra for unspecified spending.

The article originally appeared in the Novi Hometownlife newspaper, with the title “Separate, unequal: Inside a Detroit classroom,” and then was picked up and run online by the Detroit Free Press. It made several claims that are not supported by state data. For example, it painted a picture of a school district that is underfunded compared to suburban communities like Novi.

This and several claims attributed to DPS teacher Mitzi Davis warrant a closer look:

The article stated: "In suburban districts like Novi, where Davis lives, multi-million dollar bonds passed by voters pay for school improvements or new facilities, like a fitness room or early childhood center, new furniture, ever-changing technology such as new Chromebooks, new desktop computers and new iPads." Referring to DPS, it said, "Those things are dreams here."

The article neglects to mention that in 2009, Detroit voters approved a $500.6 million in bonds to pay for improvements to DPS facilities. Novi voters approved $75.6 million in bonds in 2001 and $26.4 million in 2007. Not only did DPS receive more money than the Novi district, its cash infusion came more recently.

The article also referred to the high level of poverty among DPS students but gave the wrong impression about the rate at the school where Davis teaches.

The article stated: "In an urban school district where more than 95 percent of her students qualify for free or reduced lunch, students who are already poverty-stricken are also being short-changed by a public school system that fails to provide the basics in the classroom, she said."

Davis teaches at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School. According to the Center for Education Performance and Information (a state website), 513 of the 645 students at Thirkell qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches. If her students are typical of students at her school, the rate is 79 percent, not 95 percent.

Since Detroit has so many economically disadvantaged students, it qualifies for much more federal funding than its more affluent suburbs do. The headline of the Free Press article read “City, Suburbs, Unequal.” This is true, but not in the manner that was presented.

According to the Michigan Department of Education (in a publication called “Bulletin 1014”), the Novi district’s general fund received $247 per student in federal funding for 2014-15, while Detroit Public Schools received $3,494 per student. That made the districts unequal, with DPS having $3,200 extra to spend on each child.

Federal money comes in different pots with some overlap between them. One is called “Title I, Part A” education, which is officially described as sending money to address the greatest needs. In 2014-15, Novi Community School District received $350,466 from this source. DPS received $109.5 million.

The reporter, Susan Bromley, said in an email that her story was “not intended as an in-depth report.”

“As a community reporter for Novi, everything I do has to have a Novi connection,” Bromley wrote in an email. “I wanted to find a Novi resident that works in the Detroit Public Schools to tell me their experience. Mitzi Davis relayed her experience and was the source.”

Davis cited low pay for teachers as one problem facing DPS. Her salary was $69,529 in 2014-15, according to a state database. Her salary was not reported in the story.