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Welcome to school, Detroit kindergartners. Now pay up!

Chuck Wilbur is a public policy consultant and a former education policy advisor to Governor Jennifer Granholm. Chuck Wilbur is a public policy consultant and a former education policy advisor to Governor Jennifer Granholm.



The more than 3,000 children who finished kindergarten in the Detroit Public Schools earlier this month have a lot to overcome. Most are growing up in neighborhoods defined by high levels of poverty and abandonment. Places where jobs that can support a family are scarce and college degrees a rarity. Where crime and violence are everyday facts of life.

Tragically, they aren’t the only six year olds in our state with the odds stacked so heavily against them. But there is a unique burden these particular kindergartners also face ‒ as things stand today in Michigan, they have to bail out the Detroit Public Schools.

Despite the continuing argument about who is responsible for the staggering accumulated deficit of the DPS, too little attention has been paid to who’s paying for that debt now and what will happen if we allow an indefensible status quo to stay in place year after year.

The cost of that debt will continue to fall on some of the most vulnerable members of our society ‒ the approximately 47,000 children who attend DPS schools. For those who want to imagine that this burden now falls on someone else ‒ local taxpayers, Detroit’s post bankruptcy city government, or the school district’s “waste, fraud and abuse” budget ‒ think again. Under our current system of school finance, it falls on the kids, including those kindergartners who showed up for school long after virtually all of this debt was incurred.

Even on first hearing, that sounds like a bad idea. But it is even worse when you do the math. It has been widely reported that Gov.r Snyder’s innovative “two district” proposal for eliminating the DPS deficit could result in a $50 dollar cut in per-pupil funding statewide, making the idea a tough sell in the eyes of many political observers.

But since DPS enrolls only about one in 30 public school students in the state, if that same burden falls on DPS students alone, the result isn’t a $50 per pupil cut, it is a mind-numbing $1500 per pupil.

That’s about a 20% reduction in per pupil funding before a single teacher is paid, before a single pencil is purchased. We don’t know as much as we should about what it costs to deliver a quality education to children in Michigan particularly if those children are born into poverty. Nonetheless, we’ve struggled to define a minimum funding level for our schools. In the recently adopted school aid budget, that minimum was set at $7,391. Is there anyone who can say that 47,000 children in Detroit deserve $1500 less than that amount?

Based on the “new company, old company” approach of the GM bankruptcy, Gov. Snyder’s proposal will take this burden off the students who attend DPS schools. In doing so, he’s acknowledged that more than six years of emergency management have not been able to resolve the district’s deficit crisis. The notion that an elected school board would have found that job any easier is just wishful thinking. The undeniable lesson of the last decade is that no matter who is running the DPS we can’t simply manage our way out of the downward spiral created by declining student counts and falling revenues.

And this is by no means a problem limited to Detroit. Deficit districts across the state have often seen their enrollments shrink and their deficits grow when draconian budget cutting measures make their schools even less attractive to students and parents.

In the 20-plus years since the adoption of Proposal A, state policy, particularly the mindless proliferation of charter schools, has largely exacerbated this problem. That policy failure is now the greatest reason the state has the responsibility to resolve the DPS deficit crisis either through the governor’s proposal or another measure that removes this crushing burden from DPS students.

There are plenty of issues that may divide us in Michigan, but surely we can agree that those 3,000 new Detroit kindergarten graduates shouldn’t each be saddled with thousands in debt that results primarily from a grown-up deficit of sound policy.

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