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​Detroit’s Massive School Protests Are the Latest Signs of a National Education Crisis

The teacher protests in Detroit are just the latest in a year of educational tumult across the US as money from state and federal governments dries up.

by Peter Moskowitz
May 9 2016, 5:39pm

Detroit teachers march outside the district headquarters on Monday, May 2, 2016. Photo by Carlos Osorio via Associated Press

May has been a tumultuous month for educators and students in Detroit. It started with a "sick-out" on Monday, May 2, when teachers walked out of 94 of the city's 97 public schools in protest of budget cuts and a state takeover they say has put their school system hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and threatened to leave them without pay. The week ended with potential but controversial relief: Republican state legislators passed a bill that would give $500 million to Detroit's broke school district.

"This package of bills resolves the financial problems faced by DPS [Detroit Public Schools] without affecting funding for school districts across the state and allows for every tool available to improve the DPS students' education," said Republican Representative Daniela Garcia, vice chair of the state's House Committee on Education, in a statement. "For decades, students in Detroit have not received an adequate education, and the result is the worst academic achievement in the nation. This bill package ensures that schools that are consistently the lowest achieving are shut down and will no longer fail Detroit students. There are no more excuses."

Garcia, along with representatives from DPS, did not respond to requests for comment.

But, according to union leaders, that $500 million falls short of what the school system needs for a financially stable future, and it comes with huge caveats, at least in the views of the teachers who are protesting. The bill, sponsored by House Republicans, but opposed by virtually every Democratic legislator in Michigan, would limit the ability of teachers to organize and punish teachers who choose to go on strike in the future. The state Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans, would have to pass the bill too, but it's unclear whether that will happen because state Senators have shown favor for a different rescue bill that is more union, less charter-school friendly. The bill would also create a new district that would oversee all of Detroit's schools. Teachers from the old district would keep their jobs but with new, non-unionized contracts, their pay would be tied to performance as opposed to seniority, and schools would be overseen by a new commission that would decide which to keep open and which to close based on test performance and graduation rates.

"It's hard for me to believe we're making progress when I didn't get paid for two days this week because the state didn't have enough money," Emma Howland-Bolton, a fifth grade teacher who has taught at two Detroit public schools in the past six years, told VICE. "Progress would be having our schools funded."

Detroit is unique because of its recent bankruptcy, which left it beholden to big banks and other creditors, leaving less money for things like education. The city's financial crisis has also meant that a state-appointed emergency manager (EM) has overseen the school system since 2009. The EM was tasked with reining in spending and improving student outcomes, but so far the office has seen a transformation of the school's 2009 $100 million budget surplus into $200 million in debt, and mixed, if somewhat higher, test scores. The job has come with such tumult that the district has gone through five emergency managers in six years.

But while Detroit's problems are specific to the city's circumstances, the school district is by no means alone: The protests here are just the latest in a year of educational woes across the US, as districts from Chicago to Boston, Philadelphia to Kansas, Oklahoma to North Carolina, and others struggle to educate students as money from state and federal governments dry up. Just last month, many Chicago schools were shut down after teachers held a one-day strike protesting budget problems that would have affected their pensions and overtime pay. The protest affected more than 300,000 students.

"There are huge differences between Chicago and Detroit—we don't have the population decline, or the economic engine that was devastated," Jackson Potter, a Chicago Teachers Union coordinator, told VICE. "But we have the same austerity, the same takeover of African American majority schools, all things that would never happen in wealthier, white districts."

And in Philadelphia last fall, students staged a walkout over lack of funding, moldy and overcrowded classrooms, and cuts to music programs and other creative classes.

"We know Pennsylvania isn't unique," Hiram Rivera, the director of activist group the Philadelphia Student Union, told VICE over the phone. "At the state and federal level, education just isn't a priority."

"It's hard for me to believe we're making progress when I didn't get paid for two days this week because the state didn't have enough money.... Progress would be having our schools funded."

The problem, it seems, is that there's just less money for schools than there used to be in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and pretty much everywhere else. Federal and state taxes have been cut repeatedly since the 1980s, and while the economy has been recovering from the 2008 recession, school budgets haven't kept up. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank, found that at least 31 states are providing less funding for schools than they were before the recession. The report found that when states were hit by the economic downturn, education funding was one of the first things to be cut, and it's politically difficult to ask residents to re-up that revenue again, according to experts. At the same time, federal aid to states has fallen.

But the biggest problem may be the way schools are funded across nearly all states. Each uses a mixture of state, federal, and local property taxes to pay for education, but that disadvantages poorer cities. In places like Detroit, where property values are low, that means there's simply less money raised for education.

"There's no question that the way that we raise money for schools in a lot of states is inequitable and leaves poor schools with the short end of the stick," Michael Leachman, the director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and one of the authors of the report, told VICE over the phone. "The money you can raise from property taxes in a poor district is going to inherently be less than what you can raise in a rich district."

Mark Skidmore, a professor of state and local government finance at Michigan State University, said that leaves poor districts like Detroit with one option: try to get more rich people to move to the city, and send their kids to the district's schools.

"The question is how do you create a new economic base to provide the funding needed," Skidmore told VICE.

That's exactly what Detroit is trying to do: spending big on amenities like a new hockey arena and a new streetcar line in an attempt to woo the young and monied to its downtown. But it's unclear exactly when any upside to that spending will materialize for Detroit's broke education system. Schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, and even Boston—all richer cities than Detroit—are also struggling, perhaps a sign that something more fundamental than property taxes needs to be changed in the education funding system.

"We can't keep having battles like this," Nathan Walker, a union organizer with the American Federation of Teachers in Detroit, told VICE. "They need to rethink the school finance structure and ultimately increase the amount of funding for public schools, or we'll keep having financial crises like this."

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