Decline in Detroit vs. Stability in Milwaukee

Published October 15, 2009

Your two articles about the decline of Detroit and its public schools (“In One House,” Sept. 26, 2009, and “Detroit Coaxes Students,” Oct. 1, 2009) failed to mention how teacher unions helped encourage that decline.

Although Detroit residents started moving out to newly built suburban homes in the 1950s and 1960s, the outflow of families accelerated after approval in 1970 of a union-sponsored ballot initiative to halt the aid to nonpublic schools that was permitted under the newly minted 1963 Michigan Constitution. As a result, a large number of nonpublic schools in Detroit closed down and many of the families that used those schools then opted for suburban schools rather than staying in Detroit. Forced busing drove more families out and by 2002-03 public school enrollment in Detroit was just 157,161 — a far cry from the 1965 level of almost 300,000.

After the 2002-03 school year ended, philanthropist Bob Thompson offered $200 million to build 15 new charter schools in Detroit. But Thompson withdrew his offer after vehement protests from the teacher unions, and the city’s public schools continued their decline, with enrollment dropping to only 83,777 students by 2009-10.

Contrast the Detroit experience with that of Milwaukee, where families have had an increasing range of school choices available to them — public schools, charter schools, and voucher schools — since a limited voucher program was first approved almost two decades ago. Despite all this competition for students, Milwaukee’s public schools did not experience a net decrease in enrollment over most of that period.

The availability of meaningful school choice in Milwaukee likely kept families in the city. A 1997 Calvert Institute study reported that more than half of the families with children migrating from Baltimore would have considered staying if school vouchers had been available to them. The Milwaukee experience shows that vouchers and other school choice options could save major U.S. cities from decline. Certainly, the Detroit experience shows that preventing school choice produces only a Pyrrhic victory for public school teachers.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and author of Heartland Policy Study No. 120, “Can Vouchers Reform Public Schools? Lessons from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” July 2008.