Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shell Game?

The Detroit school district is facing a huge deficit.

As it is right now, classes are overcrowded, even in the schools that are not "failing" schools; some teachers have been transferred so often they couldn't even provide grades to their students; there has been a teacher shortage in critical specialties; and there is a new technology initiative paid for by stimulus funds but it is very unclear how teachers will be trained to use the technology or how they will replace it as it needs replacement. (See John Sowash's post about that here.)

Robert Bobb is supposed to be in charge of the finances. And he estimates that if he were to balance the budget now, the average class size would be 62 students. That is what would happen with the deficit elimination plan that he was required to submit to the state. And that would obviously be a bad idea. He also doesn't prefer it.

The Detroit media has been highlighting Robert Bobb's other ideas--one of which involves splitting the Detroit school district in two. At first I thought that this idea was inspired by the division of GM as it went through bankruptcy. With GM (and I know I'm oversimplifying here), the "new" GM got to keep the GM name, and all the "good" assets--and the old GM got stuck with all the "bad" assets, but it has freed up the "new" GM to move forward. OK, that might be a controversial idea, but as Rochelle Riley said in a Detroit Free Press column, it might get people talking. And I'm all for thinking outside the box.

But what, exactly, is he talking about? NOT what I thought. No, according to this Detroit Free Press article, he's talking about

Over the past month, Bobb has also suggested two other proposals that would require lawmakers to amend state law, but he has yet to gain traction in Lansing.
One proposal would securitize $400 million in state tobacco settlement funds to distribute to all of the state’s deficit districts.
The other proposal also would require a significant -- but undetermined -- amount of state funds. That plan would split the district into two entities on paper -- one that would pay off the debts and one that would be debt-free and need start-up funding.

According to Rochelle Riley, Free Press columnist,
One would have 9,000 students and use all of the per-pupil dollars the state distributes to DPS next year to wipe out the debt and to operate.
The other would educate the district's other 66,000 students, using unknown start-up funds.
Bobb declined to discuss the plan, which he's still working up, but his spokesman, Steve Wasko, said the move would be "seamless to parents" and students, and a financial, not academic, step. (Emphasis added.)
Wait--the "good" district gets 9,000 students and the "bad" district gets 66,000 students? That sounds fishy to me.

In that same article,
Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said his first reaction to the plan was: "Brown v. Board of Education. That was the first thing that popped into my mind, separate but unequal. My biggest fear is ... that you're designating a segment of this community and children as being less than and thus educably expendable.
"We know that the schools that would be debt-free would be those schools that are consistently high-performing and those schools that are being newly built. So we're talking about the Casses, the Bates, the Ludingtons, the Langston Hughes, the Charles Wrights, the Renaissances... Who's going to be left in the debt-ridden district? Those schools that are low-performing, schools like Denby, Osborn, Central High School, some of our low-performing elementary or schools that service children with the highest degree of learning disabilities."

Think this is only a Detroit problem? Think again. We've got our own districts in this situation. You can only cut programs so far, and who would fund this other district? Let's just remember: it's one thing to put "bad assets" into a bankrupt district. But there's this sticky problem. Schools are not about assets. They are about kids. What about the kids?


  1. I teach in Detroit Public Schools and I am lucky to teach in an awesome, multicultural school with a great principal. What I think they want to do, first and foremost, is break the union and turn us all into shitty charters.

    That said, our contracts provide for extra pay for oversized classes but there is no amount of money in the world that is going to make a class with 62 students work. Large lectures may work in college (and even then, I'm not so sure) but those kids are there by choice and are paying for the privilege. It is simply not going to work with kids who aren't fed, who are in a crappy foster care system, who don't have a dad, whose mom is cracked out, who is being raised by a distant relative who is just in it for the state money, who come to school with toothaches, etc (and yes, I've known kids in all of these situations and much worse).

    I am a special ed teacher (over caseload numbers btw) and I "push in" to several classes every day. Things flow SO much better with two teachers for 28 or 30 kids. I am "highly qualified" in math so I end up teaching math a lot and having an extra person in the room can make all the difference. There is no way in hell that's gonna work in those huge rooms, unless you have about 8 teachers.

    Also, I agree that the neediest munchkins will get the short end of the stick. I have 6th graders who can't read, 7th graders who can't add, 2nd graders who can't say the alphabet...ya think the special district is gonna take them? The charters won't, or else they do and then kick them to the curb the day after Count Day. While I believe there is a special place in hell for those folks, it doesn't do me much good on earth.

  2. That's an interesting concept and businesses use it a lot, to create a place for the problem debt to go, and let other part of the business carry on and make some money.
    I agree, ultimately, Bobb is out to break the unions. I think it's the other way around, 9000 students would be working with unionized staff, and the 66000 get charter money.
    Charters are not what people think they are. They are often poor quality, with poor mission statements, run by staff with no good experience in running schools, much less getting one off the ground. They often run those special needs kids out just like TeacherPatti says, or god forbid, they try and deliver poor quality service.
    Does Bobb think he has enough control over charters? With what laws?

  3. My understanding is that Bobb would hire some outside management company to "manage" the charters. What I wonder is when--and let me repeat that--WHEN the charters fail, then what?

    Charters are not a solution; they exist to break unions and privatize what should be a public service. I wouldn't care if they were true private schools but they get public money! Pure crap.

    And you are so right on the special needs at charters...I know a few special ed teachers who taught at charters. Most of the supervisors weren't even certified teachers and none were ever special ed...some of the special ed teachers weren't even properly certified!!!!

  4. Just imagine the what happens to the needs of the kids in a city of tens of thousands of kids with a charter system. I just hate to think of it.
    I am not pro union or anti union. There's a middle ground for reasonable people. If the pendulum of management systems swings too far one way, there will be a correction the other, but like Ruth says, what about the kids?
    You could argue that DPS is so woefully failing the kids of it's district, that anything is better than what they have.
    Yeah, well about that theory, prove it I say....charters have very poor accountability. The mice are running the cheese factory there, and controls need to be put in place to ensure that charters have to do and perform just like regular school districts. Special ed services should be supplied just like regular school districts, and if it breaks their bank, well then they shouldn't be funded and operating with public money.

  5. I haven't seen details of this, but it seems odd to me. As I understand it, the "bad" DPS would collect all the state aid funding currently given to the entire DPS; that's how they can both operate and pay down debt quickly. But where is this magic money for the other 66,000 students to come from? Since all the current DPS funds would go to pay down debt, the per pupil funding for the new entity - charter or not, it all comes out of the School Aid Fund - would have to be new money from someplace. We haven't been able to get the Legislature to consider finding new money for all schools; I seriously doubt that this new Legislature will dig deep and ask for new taxes to help Detroit. They are in a horrible situation, no question, but these options make no sense. Unlike the "new" GM, schools are not revenue-generating entities. The situations are simply not parallel.

  6. Steve, my understanding is limited, but it is that the "bad" DPS would be the one with the 66,000 students, and the "good" DPS would have the 9,000 students and the best schools/buildings (for instance, Cass Tech). The funding would go with the "good" DPS, and they would have to find funding for the "bad" DPS. I've heard that might include special support from foundations or other unidentified sources. I agree that it is unlikely that the state will find funds from tobacco settlements or other money to fund that. And I also agree with TeacherPatti that it is likely that this is an effort to charterize the other schools and weaken the union.

    The other day a friend of mine read an article in the Atlantic magazine about Borders, and posted a note on Facebook that said, "Just like with GM, Borders highlights the lesson that you can't have finance people at the top, you need to have product people."

    Increasingly, in big districts--Detroit, New York City, and others--we have finance people at the top, and not product (education) people.