The Dismal State of Schools in Detroit—and What You Can Do to Help

On the abhorrent conditions of Detroit’s public schools, and how we can get involved.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Here at Stuyvesant, incessant complaints about infrastructure are commonplace. Through our unrelenting criticism of elevator maintenance, we forget the privilege it is to attend a school with a $150 million campus. We forget the 10 well-kept floors that our school’s underappreciated janitors labor over daily. We forget our newly-renovated library and Innovation Lab—both million-dollar endeavors.

We forget schools like Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, which, according to school counselor Lakia Wilson, is “the poster child for neglect and indifference to a quality teaching and learning environment. Exposed wires hang from missing ceiling tiles. Watermarks from leaks abound. Kids either sit in freezing classrooms with their coats on or strip off layers because of stifling heat.” Worse yet, “the gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold. Instead of professionally addressing the problem, a black tarp simply was placed over the entire area like a Band-Aid, ” Wilson said.

The physical deterioration of these public schools is commensurate with their academic deterioration: many of Detroit’s school teachers are forced to teach subjects for which they lack training and experience. In one school, when a math teacher resigned just a few weeks into the school year, an eighth-grade student was tasked with teaching both seventh and eighth-grade math for a month in 2015. And in every year that the National Assessment for Educational Progress has been administered, Detroit’s fourth and eighth graders have been ranked last in the country, with only about five percent of Detroit’s children deemed proficient in math or literacy.

These harrowing statistics are a result of the state’s takeover of Detroit’s schools. Michigan’s Constitution requires “a system of free public elementary and secondary schools,” an obligation it has historically fulfilled by appointing local school boards and granting them the authority to run school systems. But in 2001, a few intractable financial issues in the system emerged, and the state took direct control of Detroit public schools, intending to solve the problems that the elected Board of Education and superintendent could not.

But this decision only worsened conditions, as evidenced by Detroit’s current student enrollment. It has fallen from nearly 170,000 students in 2000, prior to the state’s takeover, to a mere 45,000—a decline of 72 percent. This is largely due to the fact that under state-appointed officials, there was gross mismanagement of academic and financial matters. Rather than solving the structural financial problems they were meant to solve, state officials resorted to ineffective, short-term solutions, leaving the district with $299 million in long-term debt by 2014. In so doing, these emergency managers paid little attention to what was happening in the classroom. Neglected students were thus forced to learn from outdated materials that, as current Superintendent Nikolai Vitti put it, were “an injustice to the children of Detroit.”

State legislators finally agreed in 2016 to send $617 million to the school district as part of a deal that relieved the district of some of its debt and ended nearly 15 years of control. A school board election was held within months, and Vitti was hired. Despite the resistance and uncertainty he has faced from teachers in the district, Vitti contends that “a reform plan is on track and the district is returning to "normalcy" after a decade of emergency management.”

To a certain extent, he is correct: recent standardized test results suggest that the system has begun to improve. His plan has two parts: (1) spend $9.7 million to make repairs in 46 school buildings using general funds, focusing first on schools with high utilization rates and high enrollment (which he sees as better investments), and (2) turn to residents to decide the fate of what is left. He plans on holding meetings across the community to foster honest conversation with parents about how to fix the remaining schools or whether to consolidate them, seeing as some schools are overcrowded while others suffer from low enrollment. Based on community feedback from these meetings, the district will devise a new facilities plan.

But these measures are simply not enough. Getting the community involved is a good first step, but conversation will do little when the district has no funding to address the expensive, growing capital needs of the remaining schools. It cannot issue debt to fund school construction through the state’s School Bond Loan Fund—the program most Michigan schools use to fund expensive school construction—because it has already borrowed the maximum amount permitted by law. And if Vitti is unable to persuade state legislators to change the way the debt is repaid or give him more flexibility to incur debt, closure seems a plausible fate for the remaining 54 school buildings that Detroit simply does not have the funds to repair.

Detroit residents recognize this, and in efforts to make change, their lawyers have begun to argue that Michigan is denying students the right to a minimally adequate education, an issue that has been raised over the years in courts in other states. American Federation of Teachers lawyer Bob Fetter contends, “When you have ceiling tiles falling from the ceiling, when you have mold in the air, when you have steam coming from your mouth when you're in the classroom because your classroom is freezing, that, amongst the other issues [such as] vermin-infested rooms, that is not a minimally adequate education." Wilson agrees, asserting, "We are losing generations of children because we are failing them. We are failing them because we are not able to provide everything that they need: textbooks, programming, and even the facilities. And that is criminal. And those are just the necessities [of a minimally adequate education]."

A state judge in Connecticut ordered sweeping changes in 2016 to reform the state’s public school system after concluding that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to provide all students with an adequate education. The judge concluded that the state’s funding system had “left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.” It would be unsurprising if the efforts of activists led to a similar conclusion about Michigan, seeing as Detroit’s public school system is not the only testament to the inequitable actions of the state. The water-supply crisis in Flint, Michigan, is yet another example of an issue within a poor, predominantly black city that has festered under state control.

Thus, moving forward, advocacy, from both those in Detroit who must bear abhorrent conditions and from those of us at Stuyvesant who have long taken our privilege for granted, is imperative. The most compelling way to enact change is to amplify the voices of students in Detroit, using our platforms to share their stories. Should such stories receive national attention, they may resonate more deeply with the state legislators that Vitti needs help convincing, hopefully compelling them to give him more flexibility to incur debt. In addition, donations to the Detroit Public Schools Foundation (DPSF)—a nonprofit that works to raise money and give grants to the Detroit Public Schools Community District and nonprofit organizations that provide programming to Detroit students—could supplement the funding the city needs that the state is withholding. As Pamela Moore, president of the DPSF, affirms, “It’s that unrestricted money [from donations] that we are focused on. We really need just the average individual to donate so that we can fill some of these gaps that the poverty-stricken community cannot, like [the cost of students’] basic needs.”

In remaining complacent, we do an extreme disservice to the residents of Detroit. To contribute—through our words or our dollars—is to finally recognize our privilege and give to others what we have been given: an adequate education and, thus, a fair chance to succeed.