If Money To Detroit Schools Is A Measure Of Caring, Michigan's People Care

Detroit Free Press column says racism built into our school system

Rochelle Riley, a Detroit Free Press columnist, wrote a column implying that children attending Detroit schools score at the bottom on national academic tests because of systemic racism. Riley cited a CEO of a non-profit who said the school system was “designed to deliver poor outcomes for kids of color,” and wrote that “we” don't care about urban schools.

“We have believed that if our suburban schools are adequate, we don’t really have to care about urban or rural schools,” Riley wrote. “Unfortunately, that means that black students — and some rural ones — attend inferior schools and too many of those students grow up to be prison inmates or a part of Michigan's poor.”

She also quoted Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation, who said, “The challenge is we have racism and inequities built into our system. ...”

Riley offered a solution that would counter this: “That means investing in its schools.”

ForTheRecord says: There may be several ways to measure the extent to which caring about something is demonstrated by a political system or society. If the metric is how many taxpayer dollars are spent on the cause — in this case, “investing in its schools” — then it appears that Detroit’s public school system has received a great deal of care from Michigan’s Legislature, and by property taxpayers within the city itself.

In 2009, city voters approved borrowing $500.5 million to improve school infrastructure. Property owners will be repaying that debt for another 20 years or more.

Where did the borrowed money go? The school district spent $17.9 million on a 2010 summer camp program; it spent $5.2 million more in 2011 on another summer program.

While the rest of the money may have been spent to improve schools, it’s hard to find evidence in the form of better conditions. One Detroit teacher told Michigan Capitol Confidential in 2016 that teachers wanted to know where all the money went, pointing to classrooms that are still in poor shape.

For example, Denby High School was cited as one of the schools in bad condition. It received $20 million from 2009 borrowing, yet after a January 2016 inspection, the school was cited for violations contributing to rodent and insect problems, water damage, and more. Other schools that received millions were still (or again) cited for building code violations within seven years.

That’s infrastructure. When it comes to day-to-day school operations, a myth has also been widely promoted that poor cities have poorly funded school districts.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, for every student enrolled in the 2016-17 school year, the Detroit school district received $14,754 in local, state and federal money for its general fund, which pays for daily expenses, including teacher salaries.

That’s more than the amounts available that same year to schools in much wealthier communities, including nearby Grosse Pointe Public Schools ($12,783), Wayne-Westland Community School District ($10,851) and Plymouth-Canton Community Schools ($9,883). Detroit also received far more than the state average of $9,910 per pupil. The same funding disparity in favor of Detroit schools has been in effect for many years.

And all that is before considering the state Legislature’s approving a $617 million bailout of the Detroit public school district in 2016.

About 85 percent of Detroit's 50,875 students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” That means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under a federal program. The designation makes the schools they attend eligible for additional state and federal assistance.

For example, in 2017-18 the state gave Detroit Public Schools Community District an extra $30.8 million to help students considered to be “at risk.” By comparison, schools in the affluent community of West Bloomfield got $303,756 in at-risk money.

The federal government gave Detroit $109.1 million in 2017-18 in one program aimed at supporting students in poverty. This one grant to one school district accounted for 24 percent of the $459.3 million the program allocated to all 865 public school districts within the state (a figure that includes charter schools).

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Detroit Prep is a top-rated and economically and racially diverse charter school in the city. It's growth means it needs to move out from a church basement and into a new location. Nearby is a former Detroit Public Schools building, sitting empty for years. But, worried about competition, the public school district refused to sell. For years, district and local government officials in Detroit had worked to block public charter schools. They pushed legislation at the Michigan Capitol to hinder them, refused to sell to them, transferred surplus buildings from the district to the city government and imposed deed restrictions on property sales to private developers. All of it was aimed to hinder or even prevent charter school choice outside the confines of the Detroit school district.

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