Detroit schools’ decline and teacher sickout reflect bad economy and demographic shifts

For two days this month, most Detroit schools were closed as teachers staged a sickout after learning the district was so low on funds it might not pay them.

For two days this month, most Detroit schools were closed as teachers staged a sickout after learning the district was so low on funds it might not pay them.

(Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

The mostly poor and black students enrolled in Detroit Public Schools have been exposed to lead, have endured crumbling classrooms, and have some of the lowest literacy rates in the country. They’ve also seen one neighborhood school after another shut down.

Then this month they had to endure something else. For two days, most of them had no school to go to.

On May 2 and 3 — the start of Teacher Appreciation Week — scores of teachers called in sick, shutting down 97% of schools. The action came about after the teachers union said it learned that the district was running out of money, and that teachers’ paychecks might not be guaranteed past June 30.


Most teachers went back to school after the union secured a promise that they would be paid through the end of June.

The walkout was yet another troubling episode for a long-beleaguered school district that is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and behind on payments to its retirement system. It was also another reminder of how the destiny of schools is guided by shifting demographics, the growing charter-school sector and poor economics, though Detroit is an extreme example.

How did things get so bad?

The distrust and financial insecurity that exploded this month followed years of buildup — a mounting deficit, dramatically declining enrollment and management by one state-appointed official after another. The problems paralleled Detroit’s overall downturn as it lost population and jobs as industry declined.

“The district is starved for cash,” said Mike Addonizio, an education professor at Wayne State University. “That brought them to where they are today.”

A major driver of that loss in revenue has been the loss of students. In 2002-2003, Detroit Public Schools counted 164,496 students in its ranks — by this year, that number was down to 47,000. And with each student that leaves, so do several thousand dollars. The district has responded by closing schools, but still retains empty buildings.

The number of K-12 students overall in Detroit — those in private schools and charters as well as public school — dropped from 201,774 in 2002 to 119,758 in 2012.


Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run, scaled up rapidly as Detroit’s economy declined, absorbing thousands of students. And in 2011, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, created the Education Achievement Authority, a separate entity that aimed to improve Detroit’s worst schools. The EAA now has about 6,000 students.

Problems tended to mount because there were few penalties for kicking the problem down the road. Under Michigan law, if a school district reports a deficit, it must file a deficit elimination plan. If the deficit persists, the consequence is largely the filing of another plan.

“People see the problem building up, but there has been no positive action to eradicate it,” Addonizio said.

Similar problems have plagued other Michigan locales. In May 2013, the teachers of Buena Vista, a tiny shrinking district whose population was almost exclusively poor and black, learned that the district had run out of cash. Teachers offered to come to school anyway — it also was Teacher Appreciation Week — but weren’t allowed to teach because the district argued that doing so would have violated labor laws.

The Buena Vista students were left without school. Instead, the county offered them “skills camp.” Eventually, the district was absorbed by other school systems. At around the same time, another district, Inkster, went under too.

In Detroit, the public schools have been under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager since 2009, even though there is an elected school board. Most recently, the manager, Darnell Earley, resigned in part because of his involvement in the Flint water crisis, taking $82,862.90 with him as part of a settlement. Now, a “transition manager,” a former judge named Steven Rhodes, is in charge.

Then there’s corruption — another problem for Detroit Public Schools. The FBI is investigating 12 Detroit principals for allegedly taking $1 million in a bribery scheme. The principals are accused of agreeing to use a school supply vendor in exchange for making money from that vendor, in amounts ranging from $4,000 to $324,000. The principals face charges of federal conspiracy and bribery filed by U.S. Atty. Barbara McQuade.

Corruption allegations not only breed distrust in the state Legislature, the body that often has to bail out the system; they also hurt the district’s bottom line. A 2014 report by the district’s Office of the Auditor General found 79 payroll fraud cases. People were paid for work they didn’t do, and one school lost money simply for not putting it in a safe.

The Legislature is now considering ways to bail out the district yet again. The Michigan House of Representatives voted to give the school system $500 million, but that money would come with strings. The Senate passed a competing a package that included $717 million, as well as a commission to approve the opening of each new school. Several of the union’s collective bargaining agreements expire on June 30, but this week, Rhodes said he would wait to renegotiate when he knew how much money he would have on hand.

The distrust around Detroit simmered through the week of the sickout. House Speaker Kevin Cotter, a Republican, called the teachers’ protest a “cheap political stunt,” according to CNN.

But Addonizio, the university professor, counters that refusing to work “is literally the only leverage teachers have.”

The teachers who skipped school demanded a forensic audit of the district’s finances; so far, though, the resources for that haven’t surfaced.

Emma Howland-Bolton, who teaches fifth grade, is concerned that “the truth of what’s been happening fiscally will never come out.” She criticized union leadership for ending the protest before getting assurances of protection beyond June 30.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — the national union that took administrative control of the Detroit Federation of Teachers — defended ending the sickout, saying she had to do whatever she could to get teachers their paychecks.

She said the union was still pursuing the audit, and “a lot of pressure is being brought by the business, and labor and clergy community … to try to get the governor to be responsible here.”

Howland-Bolton, meanwhile, reflected on the real losers in any debate about how to fix Detroit’s schools. “My students didn’t create the debt,” she said, “but they’re the ones paying for it.’’