Michigan Governor Signs $617 Million Detroit Public Schools Bailout

Published July 17, 2016

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill granting $617 million of state aid to pay off Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS) debt and establish a new school district in the city.

The state government has been in charge of DPS for seven years, during which the district experienced mounting debt and a drop in student enrollment. DPS was set to run out of money at the end of June. The state bailout package will grant DPS $467 million in debt relief and $150 million to establish a new, debt-free school district.

In addition to the bailout money, the bill Snyder signed in June also includes a district restructuring plan. In July, the previously existing school district became a tax-collecting entity under the plan in order to retire $617 million in debt. The debt will be paid off over the next eight years, and the new district’s school board will be elected by Detroit voters in November.

The bill also establishes an “A–F” grading system for schools, based on performance. Parents can review the scores when deciding between traditional and charter schools. The state will order schools receiving an F grade three years in a row to close. The law also establishes higher fines for illegal strikes by public workers.

Razor-Thin Vote Margins

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill in a 19–18 vote, and the GOP-controlled House approved the legislation by a 55–54 vote. 

“This marks a new day for Detroit families, with DPS free from debt and strong accountability measures for all schools in the city that promises a brighter future for all of Detroit’s children,” Snyder said in a statement following the law’s passage.

The teachers union in Detroit, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said in a statement the package “does not meet the needs of students and attacks educators.”

Cautious Optimism

Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice President Robert Enlow says he’s hopeful the Michigan Legislature will embrace school choice as a solution to the problems DPS has faced.

“No matter how you slice it, that’s an awful lot of money, and we hope it will be spent wisely as Detroit continues trying to turn around a district that is in no way meeting the needs of tens of thousands of students,” Enlow said. “It’s a relief that the new law does not include further restrictions or regulations on charter schools, which have become a lifeline for many families seeking an alternative to traditional schools.

“We continue to hope that Michigan lawmakers and residents will embrace full educational choice by amending the constitution to allow for parents to send their children to attend private schools,” Enlow said.

Avoiding Crises

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, says the state legislature deserves credit for rescuing DPS.

“Finding a silver bullet solution for Detroit Public Schools’ deep-seated woes would be an incredibly tall order,” DeGrow said. “But the legislature, led by Speaker [Kevin] Cotter and Sen. [Arlan] Meekhof, deserves credit for navigating political pressure and averting two crises: both a painful, costly bankruptcy and a politically appointed commission with the power and the charge to restrict educational choice in the city.”

DeGrow says greater school choice will improve educational opportunities for Detroit children.

“DPS will return to full, local school board control in January, but the best hope for taking advantage of this second chance will be establishing an even greater local control: giving parents maximum choice, information, and access, while holding all schools accountable for their performance,” DeGrow said.

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is a research fellow in education policy for The Heartland Institute.