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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Resurrecting Detroit

In the eyes of many, Detroit has become a joke. The news of the city’s bankruptcy in July quickly mutated from a national news headline to a Twitter and late night talk show punchline. I haven’t lived in “The D” since I graduated from high school, but for me, it will always be home. And I wasn’t laughing.

I grew up going to Tigers’ games with my dad; I relished the Bad Boys era of the Pistons and suffered through the Lions many, many seasons of defeat. I spent summers at Greek Town and Belle Isle; I lounged on our front porch when it was too hot to sleep in our non-air conditioned home on Littlefield Street. When others ridiculed my city, I came to her defense every time. 

But as much as I love Detroit, I am well-acquainted with her struggles. 

Our neighborhood public schools were woefully underperforming, and my parents had to work the system in order to find high-quality schools for my brother and me. And even though my Detroit public high school did a phenomenal job educating urban kids, our resources paled in comparison to wealthier suburban districts. We were just kids, but even we felt the burden of our city’s problems.

So in the midst of bankruptcy, that’s where my mind and heart linger: What does bankruptcy mean for the children of Detroit? If many of the city’s children were already facing crumbling facilities and overcrowded classrooms, what happens now that the municipal debt comes crashing down? 

Let’s start with the facts. Detroit Public Schools (DPS) are primarily funded by the state of Michigan and function as a separate entity from the city. So, in the most pragmatic terms, the direct impact on the schools should be minimal. 

But Detroit’s schools were already underwater financially—even before the city filed for bankruptcy. In 2008 the state of Michigan took financial control of the school district and appointed an emergency financial manager. Ever since, the schools have been struggling to crawl out of a mountain of debt. The city’s population has shrunk by over a quarter of a million people in the last decade. Not only that, but the number of students in DPS will likely drop to just 40,000 by 2016, according to the Associated Press. In a city with residents under financial strain, the schools will have to increasingly do more with less money. 

Beyond the tangible bread and butter budget issues, there are more nuanced problems. One of the most important factors that influence a child’s education is the classroom teacher. And while all teachers want the best for their students, some teachers are more successful than others. The most skilled and successful teachers, not surprisingly, have more options. And, quite frankly, these teachers can work in suburban districts that have the budget to pay more (not tens of thousands of dollars more, of course—but more is more). Detroit teachers were already among the lowest paid in the state; filing for bankruptcy will not help increase salaries. 

When a city files Chapter 11 there is an unmistakable sense of uncertainty and fear surrounding its future. We’ve already heard talk of city employees losing pensions; beloved treasures at the Detroit Institute of Arts may be up for sale. Ambiguity does not motivate individuals to join your teaching workforce. Humans long for security; and Detroit cannot offer that in the foreseeable future. 

The city’s financial management and school district leadership have long been seized by the state. One Detroit’s recent mayor is serving his second prison sentence and still owes the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution. One can only imagine how things could get worse. 

As a Christian, I believe in the tried and true power of grace, redemption and resurrection. Detroit is poised to receive all three. God’s track record, as evidenced in the Bible, suggests he shows up when things are seemingly at their worst. 

For all of its failing infrastructure, the core of the city remains: its people. They are Detroit’s secret weapon. They are steadfast, resilient and full of faith. They will lead the city’s renaissance. They will revitalize schools and demonstrate what the children of Detroit are truly made of. But they cannot do it alone. 

The leaders, teachers, families and students in Detroit Public Schools deserve the best. As an advocate for educational equity, and a Detroiter at heart, I have to believe better times are in Detroit’s future. I have to believe that just when we seem to be hitting the worst of times, the best are yet to come. 

To be sure, this resurrection will require incredible hard work from multiple sectors. We need business leaders, community leaders, philanthropists and entrepreneurs. 


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