Race, Poverty & Public Schools by Andy H.

Race, Poverty & Public Schools by Andy H.

With Fresh Eyes

I noted a couple of weeks ago on Motown to TreeTown that I would be following up with more posts on Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, which I finished reading in Austin while I was attending South by Southwest. Throughout the book, Glaeser emphasizes education as one of the crucial determinants of urban success. Unfortunately, he contends, the American system of locally autonomous school districts puts large central cities at a disadvantage:

In the United States, public school monopolies have ensured that central cities often have poorly functioning school districts. Suburbs are smaller and more competitive, attracting more prosperous parents.

While Glaeser is on the right track, I think it’s not just that suburbs can be more competitive and thereby attract more prosperous parents, but also that suburbs are better able to exclude poor families, whose children typically require more intensive intervention by educators. Moreover, while some suburban districts demonstrate success, a lot of Detroit suburbs have wretched school systems too. It’s not that central cities don’t have to compete; it’s just that the poor are typically a captive audience, so they are not going to shop around like affluent parents do.

Glaeser reiterates an argument I’d first heard from Janet Abu-Lughod, that the well-intentioned attempts toward integration of schools through busing in the 1970s actually increased segregation in large American cities:

Enemies of busing, and that included more than 90 percent of America, saw it as an intrusion that destroyed neighborhood schools and forced kids to travel long distances.

It’s… hard to see any wisdom in the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Milliken v. Bradley, which limited busing the borders of school districts. That decision essentially meant that people within cities were forced to integrate their public schools, but suburban kids were exempt. If an antiurban fiend had tried to cause a mass exodus from the older cities, he couldn’t have done better… The result isolated the urban poor even more.

Coincidentally, Craig Fahle interviewed Central Michigan University professor Joyce Baugh on Tuesday about the Milliken case. Baugh just published a book about the busing case, and her analysis complemented Glaeser’s. Baugh emphasized that the perpetually imminent collapse of DPS is just part of a ‘‘long history of unequal education in Detroit.’‘ Baugh points out in her book that even at the time of the Milliken decision, DPS was already in dire fiscal crisis due to the decampment of the auto industry for the suburbs (and out of state) and the subsequent loss of Detroit’s tax base, a trend underway since the 1950s. According to her, Detroit voters in the early 1970s repeatedly refused to approve maintaining or increasing school millages and bond issues.

If that was the case, it seems like yet another consequence of Detroit’s extreme concentration of employment in manufacturing at the time. You didn’t have to have any education to make a terrific living working the line. Detroiters did not value schooling, and consequently did not feel the need to invest in their schools. It’s part of how the region ended up with mediocre college attainment compared to other large metros. It’s been paying for it ever since.

Talking with Baugh, Craig Fahle notes realtors at the time of the Milliken case employed busing-related fear tactics to motivate white families to leave Detroit and even adjacent suburbs like the Grosse Pointes. I see this as further evidence of how Detroit’s very high homeownership rate in the 1960s and 1970s accelerated white flight to a greater degree than in cities like New York or Chicago. Cities with higher percentages of renters may have been subject to less panic from white residents.

Let’s return to Glaeser, who describes how a metro’s economic health today is directly correlated with the average level of educational attainment its citizens had in 1940. (I had to return the book, so I don’t recall if it is per capita income or some other measure.) It is sobering to realize that so many of our region’s problems stem in one way or another from conditions seventy years ago. It is a reminder that the consequences of investments, sacrifices and tough choices made in 2011 – or not made – will last for the rest of our lifetimes.

It’s also something to ponder in light of DPS emergency financial manager Robert Bobb’s announcement this week of his proposal to turn Detroit’s forty or so worst-performing schools over to charter operation. To quote the Detroit News editorial board:

Under the plan, DPS would lease 41 schools that have chronically failed to meet improvement goals to private charter operators with a proven record of success. There are a number to choose from, including the University Prep Academies, the Henry Ford Academies, Green Dot Schools, YES!, KIPP and others that have posted impressive results.

Bobb’s plan calls for leasing to charters the school buildings and equipment. Current student bodies would stay with the schools, and charters would have to take the current special education pupils as well. Savings to the district would be up to $99 million, reducing its current $300 million shortfall…

As part of this proposal, Bobb also outlined four longer-term options.
Most involve a combination of traditional public schools and charters, all operating with greater autonomy. The most sweeping would convert all 142 DPS schools to charters, a direction Gov. Rick Snyder is said to be leaning toward as he puts together a plan for release next month.

Experienced charter operators and other education experts have been less sanguine than News’ editorial board, however:

Mary Kay Shields, executive director for the Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, the state’s largest charter authorizer, said most ‘‘turnaround’‘ efforts in traditional public schools are statistically less successful than public charter schools begun from scratch… (She also) questions whether charter schools can help DPS fix its finances.
‘‘This is not the way to fix their $327 million deficit,’‘ she said. ‘‘I would recommend other models,’‘ such as startups…
Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, said… ‘‘The challenge for DPS is they have very little track record as an authorizer. It might give operators there some pause…’‘

According to the article, officials at other organizations echoed these points. A spokesman for the national charter operator KIPP said it wouldn’t consider Detroit because they needed to start their schools from scratch. The president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies worried charter operators wouldn’t have enough independence from DPS administration and labor agreements. The News editorial, again optimistically, responded that

the issue may be settled once the (state’s) recently passed toughened emergency financial manager law is put in place. Bobb or his successor will have the authority under the law to rewrite or break labor agreements, as well as to act without the approval of the elected board. This may be the first test of how well that law works.

I’ve also heard experts shudder at the extremely brief timeline allotted for the conversion – recruiting and hiring entire schools’ worth of staff over the less than six months between now and the start of the next school year this fall. This is the part that worries me the most: that the most rigorous operators will shy away from the timeline. The contracts would be snatched up by less qualified charter operators, who may be more interested in making a few million quick bucks on the gravy train than in providing the best possible education for students.

While what I’m reading and hearing so far is less than encouraging, it’s a consolation to recall that the number of kids who are actually stuck in the DPS system continues to dwindle. Black families from Detroit have flooded to the suburbs over the past decade, contributing to much of Macomb County’s growth and helping keep Oakland County’s growth stable.

Alas, Detroit News story on the trend suggested that schools of choice in Macomb County were actually re-segregating schools there. According to the article, in suburbs that are seeing large increases in black residents, white families are using schools of choice to send their kids to schools in whiter, neighboring districts. The article quotes my favorite Detroit demographer, Kurt Metzger:

‘‘(T)his is totally about race… You hear code words: It’s getting rougher, or the quality has gone down.’‘

Parents choosing to transfer their students will argue that this is not just some kind of fig-leaf for racism. After all, if you have objective data that your home district is performing worse than a neighboring district, why not send your child to the better schools? Lacking hard evidence to the contrary, though, I’m inclined to side with Metzger: that a lot of white families, even those who would swear otherwise, are still using increased enrollment black students as a proxy measure for ‘‘lower quality.’‘ That’s just how racial cognitive schema works.

To accept as inevitable that a significant share of white families will reflexively seek to pull their kids whenever the share of black families hits a certain point, actually reinforces Glaeser’s argument on school competition. From the standpoint of a city whose goal is to preserve its tax base and resident population, schools of choice could actually help – at least the communities that are growing more diverse aren’t losing white families, they are just sending the students to different districts. It doesn’t hurt that the real estate market is still too lousy for them to be able to sell their homes, either.

If you’re not yet sick of all the hot air I’ve spewed about DPS and want to subject yourself to more of my rambling on this topic, you might check out my earlier post at Motown to TreeTown (incidentally, one of my most-viewed posts.) Not being an educator or an education expert myself, I’m always looking to learn more, and welcome your comments.