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From 2000 to 2015, Detroit Public Schools closed 195 schools, and student enrollment declined by 71 percent. Over the past four months, DPS’ problems have become even worse.
In January, 60 schools were shut down by a “sickout”—an organized protest in which all or nearly all teachers agree to call in sick on the same day. The stunt affected 31,000 students. In March, the Michigan Legislature approved nearly $50 million in emergency funds for DPS after the DPS emergency manager announced in January teachers should not expect to be paid beyond April 8. In Late March, federal officials charged 14 individuals — 12 former and current DPS principals, a vendor, and an administrator — for operating a bribery and kickback scheme that had been in operation for over 13 years.
What is DPS’ solution to these crises? More “emergency management.”
But emergency managers will not fix Detroit’s education system, and neither will firing existing teachers and hiring new ones. Detroit has been failing its students too long to waste time trying to fix the current system.
DPS has operated its school system using a top-down, bureaucrat-run model for decades. Under this structure, teachers are protected with outdated tenure rules and rewarded for the amount of time they work in the system, rather than for performance. Innovation is scarce, and administrators, who often enjoy exorbitant salaries, are not encouraged to make the sort of radical changes that are needed to turn the city’s schools around.
Tax dollars are currently dispersed using a per-pupil formula, with a set amount of federal, state, and local dollars matched to each student enrolled in public schools. In public school districts, the district administers the funding. This system is inefficient, costly, and prone to corruption.
Lawmakers should enact reforms that give parents the ability to choose the schools their children attend using existing state funding. This would best be accomplished by using an education savings account (ESA) program. An ESA program creates individual accounts that are funded with 80–90 percent of what the state spends on the cost of educating a single child. Parents are able to use the funds on approved educational expenses, such as tuition, books, tutors, enrollment fees, and computers. Currently, five states offer some form of ESAs.
Vouchers, sometimes called “choice scholarships,” also allow parents to choose the school their children will attend. Under this type of choice program, parents receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to cover the cost of tuition. The amount of money for the voucher, the participating schools, and applicable regulations vary from state to state.
Both vouchers and ESAs create an education marketplace in which money follows the child and competition increases. Under such a model, some schools would inevitably fail, because most parents would pull their children out of the city’s worst schools. But successful schools would expand, and innovative educators would start countless new schools in neighborhoods throughout the city to meet growing demand.
If parents are given the power to put their children in safe, successful schools — public or private — kids now suffering in a failing system would have much greater access to a quality education, and DPS would be forced to be more efficient, more accountable, and to create a better education system that better serves the needs of its students.
Why should parents, who pay for the education of their children and the children of their neighbors through taxes, be required to send their kids to dilapidated schools that have collectively wasted millions of their hard-earned dollars?
The city should get rid of DPS and create an education marketplace that will foster competition and make available a high-quality education to all the students of Detroit. If it fails to do this, Detroit will be failing its students, current and future, and everyone in the city will be worse off as a result.