This morning Detroit Public Schools emergency financial manager Robert Bobb announced a new plan to stem the hemorrhaging of Detroit’s public school system by closing 45 of the district’s 179 schools. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Detroit was forced to issue a similar command just five years ago, when 34 schools were shut down to meet a $200 million budget deficit.
Enrollment in the Detroit public school system has been on a steady downward trajectory for the last ten years. Part of it has to do with Detroit as a city under assault, as a city whose depressed economy and unemployment woes are merely an amplified version of trends throughout the rest of the country. Part of it has to do with the fact that manufacturing jobs in the city dried up so badly that Detroit was topped only by New Orleans in 2007 in the rankings of U.S. cities’ population loss.
In the 2002-2003 school year, DPS’s pre-kindergarten through 12th grade student population was 164,500, but estimates for Detroit’s public school enrollment this year stand as low as 84,000 students. Experts project that in five years’ time, the number of students in Detroit Public Schools will be 56,000 students.
But Detroit also has a robust charter school industry with a student enrollment of 54,000 kids. That’s right, Detroit’s charter school enrollment is set to outpace its public school enrollment. That alone is so mindbending that it eclipses the fact that when the charter school population and public school population of Detroit is combined, Detroit’s pre-K through 12 student population has actually increased in recent years.
Declining enrollment rates have a major bearing on the school district’s ability to function since state education funding is allocated based on classroom attendance. As enrollment has declined, investment in public education has decreased. Public schools that were already struggling are being abandoned by both the state, with its wrongheaded priorities, and parents, who are (and must) demand the best education for their kids. Increasingly, charter schools in Detroit are seen as the answer.
So what we’re looking at right now is the worst-case scenario of the confluence of many factors: the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, already-entrenched poverty in a job-starved city, underfunded and failing public institutions that are being taken over by publicly funded but privately owned companies, and low-income and kids of color that are left out in the cold. It’s not just happening in Detroit, either. Folks even have a name for it: “Black Flight.” If only the same kind of implied choice could explain the mass exodus of Black students from failing city schools.
Last week, Kansas City, Missouri announced that it will be closing half of its 61 schools by year’s end. These drastic moves sound unavoidable. They sound necessary. But they reflect the misplaced priorities of how and where government chooses to invest money.
What remains to be seen is how many more cities will be making similar announcements in the coming months as local and state governments balance their budgets on the backs of students and families and communities of color.