On a freezing February morning, commuters drive past Spain Elementary-Middle School as they merge onto I-75. On this particular day, they see caution tape roping off the children’s playground, steam rising from a source covered by an orange traffic cone, and a large crane operating just a few feet from the building. Behind Spain’s doors, students and teachers face moldy hallways, mushrooms growing in the walls, filthy water leaking from malfunctioning radiators, and rodent droppings in classrooms that the teachers clean up upon their arrival. The school gymnasium fails to function as a play space because half of the floor is consumed by black mold, and the other half is buckled “like a rollercoaster,” recalls David Hecker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan. There is already a higher incidence of asthma in minority communities, but when you send kids into a school with black mold, Hecker said, “I’m no doctor but it can’t be good.”
A representative for DPS did not return messages requesting comment on these issues.
The Detroit Public School system is facing a crisis. According to Hecker, many of the schools are falling apart and there is “no local control, whatsoever.” Recently, the teacher’s union contacted Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to raise this issue. Hecker claims Duggan has been an instrumental force in bringing this issue to the forefront, and he moved $300,000 into fixing some of the infrastructural problems, but this is not enough. Public education in Michigan is woefully underfunded, and Hecker attributes this to the fact that Governor Rick Snyder supports the Republican program of austerity at the expense of welfare. “When you have austerity above anything else, you have Flint, and you have DPS.”
“It’s been hard for everybody,” says Sarah Jardine, an adaptive physical education teacher who has worked for DPS for 15 years. “It’s hard to come to work everyday, and it’s hard for the kids to be educated in this environment.” According to U of M research scientist Chris Coombe, getting a quality education in a healthy environment impacts the resources to which children will have access for the rest of their life. Without proper funding, these problems continue to impede on children’s ability to learn in a healthy venue, which Coombe says has long-term implications.
In response to these concerns, many teachers took sick or personal days on January 20, 2016 and protested, and DPS closed 88 schools as a result. Jardine, who took a personal day to participate, claims “there is a lot of teacher hating [following the protests] and this is really frustrating for us. We’ve been doing the best we can with not very much.”
This “teacher hating” stems from concerns of student welfare. Ben DeGrow, the Mackinac Center’s Director of Education Policy, says the teachers’ behavior during the sickouts was inexcusable and compromised the interests of students. As a researcher employed by the University of Michigan School of Education, Austin Raymond shares a similar sentiment. Raymond supports the positive intentions behind the sickout, but says instructional time is critical and limited, and should never be jeopardized for children. Raymond believes that proactive transparency at the onset of frustrations may have prevented the backlash against teachers, and improved parent involvement in the district can function as a way to hold both the educators and parents accountable for the welfare of the children.
Outside of Michigan, various districts have attempted this model. According to Lindsay Mitchell, an elementary school teacher in Ridgewood, NJ, her district benefits greatly from a well-funded Home and School Association where parents hold countless fundraisers to benefit the students in the school system. In turn, the parents have control over where HSA funds are allocated, and therefore can quickly deal with infrastructural issues.
While ideal in practice, DPS cannot rely on fundraisers to address the infrastructural concerns due to their extensive nature, especially when the Census reports more than 39% of Detroit families live below the poverty line. According to DPS alum Alexis Farmer, DPS parents are willing to attend school board meetings, but when there is no local control over funding, these meetings do not serve their intended purpose.
“The educational situation in Detroit is tied to larger issues of inequality and disinvestment,” says DPS alum Eric Riley. “This crisis is about more than failing students and delinquent administrators.” DeGrow says the recent events in DPS are symptomatic of the problematic culture and management of Detroit schools. He says, “there are incentives set up in the system that have allowed for funds to go to purposes other than those that primarily benefit the students.” By resorting local control, raising administrative expectations and ensuring accountability measures are in place, DeGrow is hopeful for future policy.
“The choices that we make should not be between paying teachers a good living wage or fixing the leaks in the school roof,” says Coombe. Instead, she believes we should make decisions in terms of investments in the quality of the district, and thereby the quality and prosperity of educators and learners within. Hecker, DeGrow, Raymond and Farmer all remain in agreement that restoring local control is the most promising way to make this a reality, as the district’s current regulatory scheme is inadequate.
Detroit is a warning for other struggling districts around the country, says U of M public policy student John Morse. With the upcoming election season, Hecker says it is important to keep pressing these issues so they remain a priority to future government officials.
“No kid should have to go to school in conditions like this,” says Hecker, but if legislatures step in for the benefit of the district, perhaps the commuters passing by Spain will soon see smiling youth on the monkey bars, rather than orange traffic cones and caution tape.