In what is being called the largest number of simultaneous school closings ever, anywhere in the nation, the Detroit Board of Education voted 6-5 on April 4 to close 34 public schools by this autumn, due to poor test scores and the district’s need to save $18.6 million.
Eight more could close this school year if student test scores fail to improve.
According to an April 5 Detroit Public Schools (DPS) news release, the closings are “a strategic step designed to move the district forward academically and fiscally.” In addition to expanding some successful programs, DPS plans to create new ones: Two single-sex high schools and an African-American-centered high school are already in the works.
“School quality is obviously an issue,” said Ryan Olson, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Michigan. “Parents are realizing that they are not sending their children to the best schools available to them when they use assigned schools. School safety is another issue. There have been a number of crimes committed in and around school property, including a rash of crimes this year and last.
“The options that parents have are very limited, and the demand far exceeds the supply, but parents are using their options,” Olson said. “Charter schools in the metro Detroit area are full, and many parents are demanding that more open.”
According to its news release, DPS has lost 60,000 students over the past year to declining birth rates, a shrinking city population, and competition from charter schools and neighboring school programs.
In an April 5 statement, Detroit Board of Education member Paula Johnson said the closings will improve the system.
“This, I believe, is a significant step in making the educational opportunities offered by DPS first among equals,” Johnson said. “I’ve always believed that we need to close schools in order to become a more efficient and more fiscally responsible organization. This will move us closer to that goal, but more needs to be done.”
Competing with Charters
On May 23, DPS began working on an aggressive campaign to lure students back to the school system.
“This is a critical year for the district,” said DPS Interim Superintendent Lamont Satchel. “While we continue to face declining student enrollment, we must also confront the possibility of cuts in per-pupil funding. These two factors could harm the district irreparably. They could significantly weaken our academic programs.
“We offer a variety of quality academic programs that no other school district or charter school in the state does,” Satchel continued. “The shrinking of the district could potentially kill some of these programs. We refuse to let that happen.”
With the school system losing students at an estimated rate of 10,000 per year, the total enrollment of 116,000 students could quickly fall below the important benchmark of 100,000.
“If the district’s enrollment dips below 100,000 it will cease to [be categorized by the state as] a school district of the first class,” Olson explained. “Michigan law [strictly regulates] the opening of charter schools in first-class districts. That means if enrollment falls below 100,000, charter schools will be free to open throughout the city.”
Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.