Amber Elliott is moving against the tide.
As families with school-aged children continue to move out of Detroit, Elliott and her daughter, a kindergartener, moved to the city two months ago from the Oakland County suburb of Farmington.
Elliott, however, has not yet enrolled her daughter in a Detroit school. She has her eye on Bates Academy, a Detroit magnet school for gifted students, for next school year. If her daughter doesn’t get accepted, Elliott said she will continue to pay private school tuition.
It shouldn’t have to be that way – Detroit’s public schools need to improve to attract and retain families, Elliott said. The city’s future depends on it, she said.
“I moved (to Detroit) because I can’t talk about wanting to make Detroit better and not be willing to invest,” said Elliott, 31, who last year was a Detroit Revitalization Fellow, a leadership development program in Wayne State University’s Office of Economic Development.
“The ideal plan is for her to go to school in Detroit,” she said of her daughter. “But everything is up in the air because the school system is so different and constantly changing.”
Getting an education in Detroit is no longer as easy as going to the school down the street and enrolling. That’s a novelty of the past. More than 100 neighborhood schools have closed, dozens of others opened and staffs at many schools have been replaced over the past 20 years. The Detroit Public Schools district is rated the worst large urban district in the country in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Still searching for a plan
One year after Detroit emerged from bankruptcy, the missing link to the city’s post-bankruptcy revitalization is a widely shared plan to create stable, quality schools for the city’s children.
“There is no question that Detroit children need a solid education so they can compete in a global economy, but also for their city to accelerate its revitalization,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in October about efforts to address DPS’ debt and overall school governance in the city.
It’s not just the locals who argue that successful schools can play a role in economic growth. Research and experts support Snyder’s assertion that a viable public school system supports economic growth and workforce stability.
“Smart Money: Education and Economic Development,” a book published by the Education Policy Institute based in Washington, DC, examined nearly 180 studies on the role of schools in economic vitality and concluded that primary and secondary education investment and quality are directly linked to economic development.
Tim Bartik, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and author of the book, “Investing in Kids,” said when parents move into an area to get a stronger K-12 education for their children, the result is a boost in local economic development. Additional households boost the local labor supply, which will attract employers seeking workers; and additional households boost local demand for goods and services, which will also boost local employment, he said.
All of which would likely be just fine with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who was elected in 2013 on a promise of making city population growth a major priority.
The exodus of families with children from Detroit has slowed considerably, but continues. From 2006 to 2010, those aged 1 to 17 made up 30 percent of people moving out of Detroit to another county, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows. Today, children represent about 13 percent of all residents leaving Detroit for another county.
Detroit’s post-bankruptcy ambitions have added urgency to the state’s plans to fix the schools, according to Snyder’s office. In another time, that vow may have raised the spirits of Detroit families. But as many of these same families note, the state has run Detroit’s public schools for 13 of the past 16 years and failed to improve, much less fix, the struggling system. Instability and debt, rather than excellence, remain the norm for too many schools across the city.
Money and power
Detroit’s public education landscape is now three separate systems of schools: the traditional Detroit Public Schools district; the Education Achievement Authority (the state’s four-year-old emergency reform school district), and dozens of charter schools. DPS now needs $715 million from the state to survive, according to Snyder.
Another state plan is expected possibly as early as this week to try to correct DPS’ crippling debt and centralize some oversight of DPS, the EAA and charters. For months, conversations among legislators, community and business leaders have revolved around a handful of questions: When will the state return power to the city’s elected school board? How to pay for the $715 million in debt? And what roles will the city’s teachers’ unions, the state, and the mayor’s office play?
In short, the Detroit schools debate has revolved around questions of money and power.
Parents say if they don’t see better achievement and security in Detroit’s schools, don’t expect to see many families moving in to revitalize the neighborhoods. For too many, improvement in Detroit’s schools can’t come fast enough.
Amanda Gregory, 33, and her husband drove to Detroit from South Carolina three times during the winter of 2012-13 to look at houses. She fell in love with the stately, brick homes in neighborhoods such as Grandmont and Rosedale that were selling for a song.
In the end, they moved to the downriver suburb of Riverview with their two school-aged children.
Gregory, director of street markets for Eastern Market Corporation and another Detroit Revitalization Fellow, said the city’s schools are “98 percent of the reason we don’t live in the city.”
“We really wanted to stay in the city. Detroit is so unique in its abundance of single family residences, but families are just about the last ones who want to live in them because of the school system,” Gregory said.
She said she’d like to see the next plan for Detroit schools “level the playing field” and fund schools adequately so that all schools have the same quality of teachers and resources as the city’s top performing schools.
“It’s crazy to see some good, top 10 schools in Detroit and then so many underperforming schools where children face problems the schools are unable to address due to lack of resources,” she said.
“Accepting troubled schools is wrong. Accepting it as something urban areas have? I see no reason to accept that. Detroit has the potential to go back to what it was – an incredible city and a great place for families to live.”
Bridge Staff Writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.