His task would be to balance the books and begin improving schools that serve 48,000 students—down from more than 160,000 students in 2000, due to demographics, the movement of some 34,000 students to charters, and the State-run Education Achievement Authority’s takeover of former public schools. A turnaround would be no small feat for a district that had closed dozens of schools and had accumulated deficits of more than $500 million in recent years, and where state-appointed emergency managers had struggled.
Rhodes came into the almost-yearlong role in early 2016 with a solid understanding of the challenges but also with optimism about the district’s future. “One of the goals I had was for the district to take control of its narrative,” Rhodes said during an interview with the Law Quadrangle on his last day as transition manager in December. “Lots of people speak about public education in Detroit in ways that aren’t always accurate. The narrative that I think is accurate is one of a fresh start, of restructuring, revitalization, and reorganization. And a narrative of being on a path to a successful future.”
That path is complicated by numerous factors. One is the mix of public schools and charter schools. Detroit has the second-highest percentage (after New Orleans) of students in charter schools of any city in the United States. State taxpayers fund charter schools throughout Michigan with nearly $1 billion a year, much of which would go to public schools in a traditional model. To be sure, some charter schools have been successful and have created what many see as necessary competition for public schools. At many charter schools in Detroit, however, test scores and other measurements indicate little or no benefit over traditional public schools.
“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,” a recent New York Times analysis stated. “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 so that no one thrives.”
Nationwide, much of the debate about the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools references Michigan as a case study. Researcher David Arsen, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University, published a widely cited paper in 2016 titled “Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why: Michigan’s Story.” Through their research, Arsen and his collaborators found that state school finance and choice policies “significantly contribute” to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts, particularly Detroit.
“Most of the explained variation in district fund balances is due to changes in districts’ state funding, enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and special education students whose required services are inadequately reimbursed by the state,” the study reports. “Our results show that the state’s school choice policies powerfully exacerbate the financial pressures of declining-enrollment districts, particularly those with sustained high levels of charter school penetration.”
The study came out in the summer of 2016, right around the time that the battle over charter schools in the state entered a new chapter. That’s when the Legislature passed and the governor signed a measure that did not include an education commission under the control of Mayor Mike Duggan, ’83. Many in the Detroit educational community had hoped such a commission would have been able to influence which new charter schools were allowed to open.
But the June signing did include a $617 million bailout for which Rhodes had pushed. “This legislation gives Michigan’s comeback city a fresh start in education,” Snyder told The Detroit News. “Now the residents of Detroit need to engage with their schools and help find good leaders who can provide the best possible chance of success for families in the city.”
Another challenge for the school district is the way Michigan allots per-pupil spending. Not every district receives the same per-pupil allowance. But each district does receive an allowance within a “statutorily defined range, theoretically ensuring a modicum of funding equality across the state.” In a 2016 opinion piece for mlive.com, Eli Savit, ’10, who is senior adviser and counsel to Duggan, wrote, “The facade of equality collapses, however, when one realizes that Michigan funds only part of local school districts’ expenses. Crucially, Michigan provides zero funds for building new school facilities, or for improving or maintaining older schools. Whenever a district needs to replace or refurbish an aging school building, it must raise the funds itself. And as a practical matter, Michigan provides school districts just one way to pay for physical infrastructure: through local property taxes.”
Savit says the problem—as with any system based on local property taxes—is that wealthy districts are far better equipped than poorer ones to raise the necessary funds. In Bloomfield Hills, for example, the average home value is about $400,000. In Detroit, it is closer to $40,000. Detroit must levy a property tax 10 times higher than Bloomfield Hills to raise the same amount, per home, for a school maintenance or improvement project. “The results are predictable,” Savit wrote. “Wealthy districts in Michigan are able to build and maintain modern buildings while imposing only a minimal tax burden. In poorer districts—where many residents struggle to make ends meet—the cost of raising funds for building and maintenance is prohibitively high. Thus, aging schools in property-poor districts often go unmaintained and unreplaced. And so students in those districts are forced to attend school in dilapidated, hazardous buildings.” (A bond issue passed by Detroit voters funded the new Cass Tech High School, Trey Chennault’s future alma mater, which opened in 2005.)
In spite of those challenges, DPSCD has begun maintenance and repair work at many schools, in addition to other improvements. “So much more is needed,” Rhodes says. “But we’re off to a good start.”
Rhodes remains optimistic about the district in general. He offered positive reviews of newly elected school board members (who include Sonya Mays, ’08). Several partnerships between schools and businesses or organizations hold promise, he says—such as one between the Detroit Medical Center and Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Math, where students have increased opportunities to learn nursing, chemistry, and other skills; and one that will begin in the fall, a partnership between the city, trade unions, and A. Philip Randolph Technical High School to teach skilled trades.
Rhodes also is proud that the interim academic superintendent, Alycia Meriweather, involved teachers to help draw up the district’s new academic plan, and he says one of the best parts of his experience as transition manager was getting to interact with teachers.
“It all begins with the dedication and commitment of the teachers,” Rhodes says. “The efforts they put in given the challenges they face are incredible. Sixty percent of our students come from family settings in poverty. That makes educating them very challenging.” So teachers feed students breakfast. They do laundry at the schools so students can go to school in clean clothing. They buy supplies and textbooks with their own money.
“One visible change during my tenure is the attitude and morale of the teachers,” Rhodes says. “For the first time in seven or eight years, we were able to give them a modest pay raise. It was not as much as I would have liked to have given them, or what they deserved, but it was something. I hope the district can continue to find ways to give them the resources they need.”