A Midwestern Tale of Two Cities

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eBlog, 2/14/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the tale of two cities in Detroit: is a city set to displace Chicago as the capitol of the Midwest—or is a city with its fiscal future in re-jeopardy, because of its inability and conflicts with the state over how to educate its children in a way that will create incentives for families to want to move back into the city?

Post Chapter 9 Reinvention? In opting to relocate its regional headquarters to downtown Detroit, Microsoft has sent a message that the city’s emergence from the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in American history is a success: the city is even threatening to displace Chicago as a regional headquarters of choice for the Midwest. That’s an honor long owned by Chicago. The extraordinary changes in the city—fashioned through the path-breaking efforts not just of former emergency manager Kevyn Orr and now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, but also the fiscal rebuilding blueprint, the city’s court-approved plan of debt adjustment, a plan aptly described by the Detroit News an “arc of change, the redemptive power of reinvention, and critical facts on the ground say a bid by Detroit and southeast Michigan to be part of that conversation could be real for those with the courage to take a real, hard look.”  The paper, continuing its own comparison of Detroit to the Windy City—two cities which appear to be fiscally headed in opposite directions, aptly notes the respective state roles, contentious as they are, but noting that while the Michigan government is “aggressively attacking its unfunded liabilities,” instead of being (in Illinois) a state legislature “deaf to the fiscal ticking time bomb of its state pensions.” An iconic city’s recovery from bankruptcy is, after all, not just designing and implementing an architectural and fiscal turnaround, but also reversing the fiscal and economic momentum; thus, unsurprisingly, in a reminder of the old aphorism: “Go West, young man;” today it is civic leader, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert who actively recruits young talent to the Motor City, telling potential new Detroiters: anyone can go work in Chicago and most will change nothing, but you could make a difference working and living in Detroit. Or, as the News describes it: “So could companies looking to reduce costs, find a vibrant food, arts and culture scene, and join an enthusiastic business community with global connections. They could find both in Detroit. Or in Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan.”  

Might There Be a Fly in the State Ointment? Yet for a city one-third its former size, the more pressing challenge to its fiscal future is likely to rest on the perceived quality of its public schools—schools in a city where the Detroit Public School system became physically and fiscally insolvent—and where the state intervened to not just appoint an emergency manager, but also where the legislature created and imposed what some deem the nation’s most economically disparate school system—or, as the New Jersey nonprofit EdBuild, in its report “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders,” described it: nearly half of the households in Detroit Public Schools—49.2%—live in poverty, compared with 6.5% in Grosse Pointe Public Schools—with the non-profit noting to the Detroit News: “Fault Lines shows how school finance systems have led to school segregation along class lines within communities around the country, and how judicial and legislative actions have actually served to strengthen these borders that divide our children and our communities:” its report traces the economic gap between Detroit and Grosse Pointe schools to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Milliken v. Bradley, which blocked busing between districts to achieve racial integration, writing: “Income segregation in the Detroit metropolitan area parallels the racial segregation that inspired the Milliken case and has worsened since the case was first argued.” Today, there are some 97 traditional public schools in Detroit, 98 charter schools, and 14 schools in the Education Achievement Authority, a controversial state-run district created in 2012—that is, there are an estimated 30,000 more seats than students in the city in the wake of the state’s 2015 “rescue” of the Detroit Public Schools—a rescue of a public school district which had been under state control, and a rescue which pledged some $617 million to address the debt, but also invoked a number of unorthodox “reforms” which state legislators argued would promise a brighter future: the reforms included provisions which permit the hiring uncertified teachers, penalization of striking employees, and the outsourcing of academic roles, like the superintendent position, to surrounding districts, and the state closure of all schools that fall in the bottom 5 percent of academic performance for three years in a row: a category into which dozens of Detroit public schools fall. The state also authorized charter schools for Detroit.

Now, a new Michigan School Reform Office school closing plan has reignited debate in Detroit over how to fix the Motor City’s fractured system of public schools, less than seven months after the Michigan Legislature spent $617 million relieving Detroit Public Schools of crushing debt which had hovered on the brink of its own chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Indeed, the perceived fiscal threat to the city’s future has led Mayor Mike Duggan to deem the state school closing plan “irrational,” because many of the other nearby public schools in Detroit are on the brink of being deemed failing schools—or, as Mayor Duggan noted: “You don’t throw people out of the boat without looking out to see if there’s a life raft.” Moreover, the Mayor and the newly elected Board of Education for the Detroit Public Schools Community District have threatened to sue Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to stop the proposed closures—closures which the state is evaluating to determine whether such closures would create unreasonable hardships for students, such as distance to other schools with capacity, if the buildings are closed. Ergo, unsurprisingly, Governor Snyder is confronting pressure from school leaders, parents, businesses and civic groups to consider the impact that another round of school closings might have on Detroit’s ongoing recovery—and on its neighborhoods and commercial corridors hard hit by decades of abandonment and disinvestment—or, as Veronica Conforme, Chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority, notes: such closures would “cause disruption in the neighborhoods.”

The state-municipal tussle relates to the tug-of-rope state-local challenge about how to address Detroit’s worst-performing schools under a 7-year-old state statute which has never been fully enforced—and comes as the Michigan School Reform Office has announced that twenty-five Detroit schools may be closed in June due to persistently low student test scores—creating apprehension that these closures, coming at a time when then city’s focus on fuller implementation of its approved plan of debt adjustment envisions revitalization shifting from downtown and Midtown to Detroit’s vast neighborhoods and commercial corridors. Unsurprisingly, some business and community leaders are concerned that the impact mass school closings could undercut the city’s efforts to turn around pockets of the city which have been showing signs of rebirth, or, as Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, who worries that abruptly closing two dozen schools could “create other crises” in city neighborhoods, puts it: “I don’t want to see neighborhoods that are on the early path to recovery be dealt a setback.” That is, in the post chapter 9 city, rebuilding neighborhoods must go hand in hand with schools: the presence of a school, after all, affects the assessed values of properties, residential and commercial, in a neighborhood.

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