Is Detroit the Most Troubled School District in the U.S.?

With students emptying out of Detroit’s schools, funding is suffering.


While the fate of teachers unions hangs in the balance in the Supreme Court—which on Monday is hearing arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, about the legality of forced union dues—some frustrated teachers in Detroit are taking matters into their own hands with the city’s largest yet “sickout.” The result? The closure of roughly two-thirds of the 100-odd public schools in the embattled district, which serves about 46,000 students. There have been numerous sickouts—a series of “rolling strikes” in which a large percentage of teachers call in sick at the same time—in Detroit over the past several months, but Monday’s is the largest yet.

Detroit teachers are angry about all the usual suspects: huge classes, shoddy pay, slashed benefits, generally unpleasant working conditions. But Detroit, being Detroit, is grappling with some of its own special challenges, namely, a massive and ever-growing debt load that’s preventing the school district from paying vendors, including the schools’ employee pension program. At the moment, $3,019 of the $7,296 per-pupil funding DPS gets from the state goes to debt services. That is an astonishing 41 cents on the dollar going to pay down debt. If something doesn’t change, the struggling school district will follow its city into bankruptcy proceedings. The controversial solution floated by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder—to eliminate the Detroit Public Schools debt by creating, ex nihilo, an all-new debt-free district run by a governor-appointed board, with a lot more oversight, while turning the original district into a studentless debt-paying shell—has not been popular with teachers.

These high-profile sickouts are just the latest crisis for Detroit schools. The school district, the largest in Michigan, has been under “state oversight” since early 2009 as enrollment plummeted and debt spiraled, but teachers say the governor-appointed emergency manager has done little to address the schools’ crumbling infrastructure. (Incidentally, this same guy, Darnell Earley, was Flint’s emergency manager when the city made the disastrous and possibly criminal decision to use untreated Flint River water as the municipality’s drinking water; last month Flint’s mayor declared a state of emergency over the high lead levels in the city’s drinking water.)

Even Detroit’s teachers union is a mess: The man taking responsibility for the sickouts, Steve Conn, was removed in August as president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers after being found guilty of “misconduct” (illegally canceling meetings, failing to investigate abuse, that sort of thing). Last month, the American Federation of Teachers placed the Detroit branch of its union under “voluntary administratorship,” meaning the national organization is running the local one until further notice. On Sunday, the AFT-appointed interim president of the DFT told a local news reporter, “We haven’t sanctioned the sickouts, but I want everyone to understand the frustration.”

So where will this drama end? Steve Conn has promised more and larger sickouts in the future. Gov. Snyder’s bailout plan is stalled in the Legislature. And parties on both sides understand that the recovery of Detroit hinges to a not-insubstantial extent on the recovery of its schools: No one’s going to flock back to Detroit until the schools get their act together. (For the fourth time in a row, Detroit came in dead last among big-city schools on the NAEP exam, known as the “nation’s report card.”) But how can the schools get their act together when teachers are so miserable and so much of the operating budget is devoted to paying back debts? And how can students learn when their teachers are constantly staging protest sickouts? Stay tuned.