Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.
While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.
Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse, than Detroit’s traditional public schools.
“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”
The city has emerged almost miraculously fast from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Downtown Detroit hums with development — a maze of detours around construction sites with luxury apartments, a new Nike store along a stretch of prime but empty storefronts. Even where blight resumes a few blocks out, farm-to-table restaurants and modern design stores sprout hopefully. Last year, the city had its smallest population decline since the 1950s.
But the city’s residents — many of them stranded here after whites and middle-class blacks fled in waves — will not share in any renaissance as long as only 10 percent of rising high school seniors score “college ready” on reading tests.
“We’ll either invest in our own children and prepare them to fill these jobs, or I suppose maybe people will migrate from other places in the country to fill them,” said Thomas F. Stallworth III, a former state Representative who steered the passage of the 2014 legislation that paved Detroit’s way out of bankruptcy. “If that’s the case, we are still left with this underbelly of generational poverty with no clear path out.”
Charter schools have been a multi-billion dollar scam for taxpayers for years now, the promise of "professional education corporations" coming in to bring failing school districts around. The reality is that generational poverty assures that it can't work, and voters perpetuate the system every time elections come around.
Public school in 2016 is essentially educational triage. The good kids in the wealthy districts get the money, instruction, attention and do well in life. Everyone else gets thrown in the deep end with whatever is left and told to fend for themselves. Increasingly, that's nothing, and only a few make it out of hell every year. Everyone else, well, they're not worth saving, are they?
So while corporate Detroit is having a renaissance complete with hipsters and urban renewal, the people that lived here all their lives are getting none of that.
And so it goes.