Letter from Detroit — From the October 2016 issue

Held Back

Battling for the fate of a school district

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The Detroit Board of Education has struggled to meet the needs of the city’s children since its inception, in 1842. Within a decade, the system was already so pressed for space that just two of its fifteen buildings were originally designed as schools. Researchers at Loveland Technologies, a local property-survey company, recently dug up the 1852–53 superintendent’s report, which describes 200 children crammed into a house on Seventh Street in the Eighth Ward, “literally upon one another.” By 1867 there were fewer than 6,000 available seats for more than 20,000 school-age children. The Board of Education tried to keep up, and constructed eighty-eight school buildings by the end of the century.

Beginning with the industrial boom of the 1880s and the rise of the automobile industry that followed, district enrollment surged to nearly 40,000 by 1900 and continued to grow by as much as 10 percent annually for several years. Deliberate housing discrimination — in the Forties, developers built a six-foot wall to separate a new whites-only subdivision from a black neighborhood — paired with aggressive gerrymandering of school zones, helped guarantee segregation in classrooms. By the early 1950s, major car companies began to move out of Detroit’s city limits, and white families — the city’s middle class — largely disappeared. The result was a blow to tax revenue, which led to deep and persistent school-funding disparities between Detroit schools, which became increasingly poor and black, and suburban districts, which were far wealthier and whiter. The suburbs actively kept black families out. In 1948, Orville Hubbard, the long-serving mayor of neighboring Dearborn, Michigan, sought to block the construction of a private development for upper-middle-class residents, for fear of some being black. He sent city employees into the streets with pamphlets that read:

keep negroes out of dearborn

protect your home and mine!

In April 1966, more than 2,000 students walked out of Detroit’s Northern High School in protest. Northern had gone from being predominantly white and high performing to having mostly black students and poor academic results — three quarters of the sophomore and senior classes scored below the national average on math, science, and reading tests. When an honor student wrote an editorial for Northern’s school newspaper, criticizing its practice of advancing students to the next grade regardless of skills mastered and lamenting the course catalogue’s lack of college prep, the principal refused to print the article. Soon after, white voters punitively struck down a proposed tax hike that would have offered some relief to the district’s ailing finances. Racial tensions in the city peaked a year later, when Detroit police raided a bar in a black neighborhood, sparking five days of riots, looting, and fires. The National Guard and paratroopers flooded the streets. Forty-three people were killed, and more than a thousand buildings were burned.

Spain Elementary-Middle School

Spain Elementary-Middle School

Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1954, and while “separate but equal” schooling was being dismantled across the South, the fight didn’t arrive in Detroit until 1970, when a group of mostly black parents, with the help of the NAACP, took the state to court. A U.S. district-court judge, Stephen Roth, ruled that Detroit had been segregated by design, and ordered that the suburban districts to which many white Detroiters had fled must share the burden of fixing the problem. Detroit was placed under a court-mandated desegregation order that involved nearly 800,000 students and fifty-two suburban districts. This meant busing, and the backlash was swift and violent. In the suburb of Pontiac, the Ku Klux Klan set school buses on fire.

All the while, Detroit’s deficit rose to nearly $40 million. In 1974, the Supreme Court struck down the desegregation order — a landmark ruling that relieved suburban districts of their burden to help ease racial disparities in the city and set the stage for a long battle over whose responsibility it was to lift the Detroit school system out of its quagmire.

The state took over in 1999. A likely catalyst was the district’s finding that the four-year-graduation rate had fallen as low as 30 percent, combined with the results of a financial review, which made state officials suspicious of mismanagement. Some teachers and lawmakers have also claimed that John Engler, the governor, was eager to control the district as a way to tap into a $1.5 billion construction bond. Whatever the case, people who lived in Detroit saw the move as hostile overreach, an attempt by the statehouse to rob citizens of their right to elect a locally controlled school board. Municipal authority was briefly returned in 2005, but in late 2008, the state again declared a financial emergency in the district, and Lansing has held oversight ever since.

The renewed takeover kicked into effect the state’s emergency-manager law, which has been deployed disproportionately in black cities. Half of Michigan’s black population has lived under emergency management in recent years, compared with only 2 percent of white people. The law’s parameters give emergency managers nearly total authority over struggling communities. In 2012, the state’s residents voted by referendum to repeal the law, but Governor Snyder instead signed a slightly amended version, which included a provision that would prevent citizens from attempting to quash it again.

The first of the Detroit Public Schools’ emergency managers, Robert Bobb, arrived in 2009. He was tasked with reining in the unruly debt, but under his direction, the debt load grew — and after all the emergency managers since, the district still owes hundreds of millions. Detroiters lost what little trust in the system they’d had, especially after 2015, when one of Bobb’s most high-profile hires, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was brought down by corruption. Byrd-Bennett, a former employee of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, placed an order for $40 million worth of textbooks — the largest contract in district history — after which the company deposited more than $26,000 into her bank account. Months earlier, the emergency manager Darnell Earley had shut down the district’s Office of Inspector General, whose function was to investigate corrupt behavior among school officials.

Enrollment in Detroit Public Schools, which peaked in 1966 at around 300,000, has dropped steadily, and is now close to 50,000. For decades, teachers have walked out regularly, battling against pay cuts, driving exasperated parents to send their kids to charters. Today Michigan has more for-profit charter schools than any other state. Competition for students, and state funding, is fierce. John Grover, who wrote a report on the district’s history for Loveland, the property-survey company, describes the recruitment practices of charter and suburban schools in the Detroit metropolitan area as “downright predatory.” Before Count Day, when the state determines how much money to send each school on the basis of that day’s attendance, schools around Detroit work aggressively to get their enrollment numbers up. Their arsenals include parties and prizes. D.P.S. has offered students who attend class on Count Day a chance to win a forty-two-inch plasma television, a laptop, iPods, and gift cards.

As public schools lose students, a trail of shuttered buildings is being left across the city. Hutchins Intermediate, in Virginia Park, sits decaying, its windows, doors, and lockers busted open; debris forms a thick carpet along the wide corridors; the spiral staircases that once linked twin gyms to an elevated track have been cut out and sold as scrap metal. Researchers at Loveland say a school’s closure can devastate a neighborhood, robbing its residents of their community center. In the six years since Hutchins was boarded up, the neighborhood around it seems to have shut down, too.

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is a writer for the Village Voice.

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