Detroit’s school crisis is a century in the making

It is both frustrating and disheartening to read some of the recent commentaries by citizens and public officials about the ongoing crisis in the Detroit Public Schools system.

The conventional wisdom appears to be that the problems in DPS are of recent vintage, attributable primarily to incompetence, financial scandals and corruption. While these factors have contributed to the crisis, the deeper truth is that DPS’s current problems can be traced to events and policies from many decades ago, beginning with Michigan’s initial unwillingness in the 1830s to establish and fund schools for African-American children.

After these schools finally were created in the 1840s-60s, the school system was segregated, and it remained that way for a decade, until continuing public pressure and an 1869 Michigan Supreme Court decision forced the school board to integrate. By the mid-1930s, however, the schools were becoming resegregated, due to both policies established by the board and rigid residential segregation via restrictive covenants and real estate practices. In addition, majority-black schools were underfunded in comparison with their majority-white counterparts.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the school board began modest efforts to improve the city’s schools, but their efforts were hampered by defeats of school millages and bond proposals, along with a significant cut in their allocation from the County Tax Allocation Board and decreases in revenue from property assessments.

The difficulties faced by DPS were part of larger social and economic changes in the metropolitan area that began after World War II, when thousands of manufacturing jobs left Detroit. The loss of these jobs had a ripple effect on the local economy, and working- and middle-class whites who had adequate resources and skills moved to the suburbs, taking their resources with them. Blacks, however, remained in the city, due to residential segregation. These developments devastated the city’s tax base.

In 1970, the school board introduced a modest desegregation plan that would have involved two-way integration of 11 of the city’s 22 high schools. That plan was overturned by the state legislature, and additional developments led local and national NAACP leaders to file a comprehensive suit in federal district court challenging school segregation citywide.

Their efforts toward desegregation were not because they believed that black students needed to sit next to white students in order to learn, but because they believed that white parents and policymakers would be more willing to provide adequate resources if their own children attended those schools.

In 1971, a federal district court ruled that DPS was illegally segregated. This was due, the court said, to housing segregation created by government policies and practices of real estate associations and lending institutions, as well as specific actions by local and state school officials. These practices that included gerrymandering of attendance lines, open enrollment and school transfer policies, transportation and construction policies, funding decisions, and the like.

In 1972, the district court called for the development of a metropolitan-wide plan as the only effective remedy to address illegal segregation in the Detroit Public Schools. The idea was immediately challenged by suburban school districts, and, when the case reached the United States Supreme Court, a 5-4 majority ruled that those districts could not be included, because the plaintiffs had not shown that suburban officials had passed specific policies to segregate their schools.

This argument, however, was somewhat disingenuous. Because of rigid housing segregation in suburbia, few black students were available to attend those schools. In 1970, census data show that out of 2,668,000 suburban residents, only 97,000 were African American. Thus specific policies to segregate suburban schools were unnecessary.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court to develop a new remedy, which eventually included a very limited Detroit-only busing program, along with temporary funding to implement various educational reforms. This compensation plan proved to be insufficient because the city’s deteriorating tax base and inadequate state aid had left the system in dire straits, and the inability to pass millage and bond proposals had only made things worse.

In order to properly resolve the continuing crisis in DPS, it is critical for policymakers and citizens to understand and acknowledge that current problems result from the longstanding negligence of and, at times, outright hostility to, students in some of the city’s public schools. Unless and until this happens, public education in the Detroit metropolitan area will remain “separate and unequal.”

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Thu, 02/25/2016 - 9:54am
Money will definitely help but that alone will NEVER solve the problem. Schools of choice in some areas does help but not feasible for many in the inner cities. Our priorities are ones that we really only pay lip service to. It is about poverty,unemployment, politics, economics, etc. Peace R.L.
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 11:07am
I agree with Dr. Baugh that the problems in Detroit schools have been decades in the making, and I would ask people to remember: If we don't learn from history, we are destined to repeat it. The people in the state of MI are now seeing the results of decades of short sighted, business friendly, segregationist decisions. Some of the issues Dr. Baugh has mentioned have been talked about for years. The unbridled over building of housing (good for builders), has perpetuated "white flight", and the sprawl in the tri-county area. At every opportunity for change, you see the likes of Brooks Patterson, Oakland County Executive, advocating the same short sighted decisions I mentioned above. The problem with what has happened is that it created the "haves and the have nots". The polarization we see today in Michigan politics, as well as National politics is because people refuse to look at the big picture and what has been created in our state. I would ask all of us to put ourselves in the shoes of the other and to understand their reality and what "their days" are like.
Charles Hahn
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 12:58pm
Clearly the history of racial segregation is primarily based on government policies and laws. Why would anyone look to government to fix the problem. Education is too important to trust government to do the job. A Voucher system is Detroit's only effective solution at this point. Direct power to the parents; that is unless you're are a typical liberal who knows what's good for everybody else.
Dr. Ormand Hook
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 3:33pm
I like and agree y With your observations. More layers of bureaucracy have NEVER solved anything. Our solutions must be the opposite of bureaucracy.
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 11:23am
I taught in Detroit for twenty years and was appalled at the incompetence of so many teachers and administrators The children in my room progresses more than one year and did amazing work. I had high expectations and gave them interesting work. Also took individual differences into consideration Absence of humor and respect for them also helped
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 1:59pm
Dr. Baugh, I'm so sorry to notice that your re telling of DPS' history is a basically a 150 years fight for equality of opportunity for children. I started school in Germany, repeated second grade in Hazel Park in the fall of 1957 because there was no program for second language learners, but I learned English real fast. We moved to Detroit in 1958. There I enjoyed third, fourth and part of fifth grades very much. In Dearborn I was enrolled in a Lutheran school, then I finished Jr. High and HS in Westland. My best school experience was in Detroit's Wayne Elementary where I even learned some Spanish and enjoyed excellent introductions to all the sciences. I'd say that mine was a pretty good regional survey from the lower end of the socio economic ladder at that time. There will always be richer and poorer neiborhoods. And yes, money is not the only ingredient of a good education, but it is one of the big ones. I just don't understand how Americans continue to espouse equality of opportunity, the importance of good public education for this democracy, a bedrock of this country's foundation and credo YET fund and administer our public schools unequally. I believe it is fundamentally wrong for us to allow government to be an enabler of social inequality. I write off this contradiction as yet another example of the swamp of hypocrisy unfortunate Americans have to tolerate. In Germany (all of the EU that I'm aware of) and Canada, K-12 and pre school are uniformly funded by the State or Province. Neighborhood and property taxes there do not precipitate institutional disadvantages. Peter K. Pleitner Ann Arbor, MI
Thu, 02/25/2016 - 4:13pm
I lived in Flint during much of this time period and can attest that much of what is stated was also true in that city. It is somewhat ironic that today there seems to be less concern about integration and more concern about delivering the best education possible regardless of the racial mix. That is why it is so troubling that the state would step in, under the cloud of bankruptcy, to literally steal billions of dollars of assets from Detroit when there was no need to do so. Defenders of the action say that the Grand Bargain is what opened the door for settling with the city's creditors. This is false. During the bankruptcy a bank that had no previous dealings with the city offered to loan the city the funds, $500 million, needed to reach agreement with the creditors and this would have enabled the city to maintain ownership of the art that was appraised at between $4.5 and $8 billion. The net result would have been the net worth of the city coming out of bankruptcy would have been between $4 and $7.5 billion higher than it is today. With that kind of money to invest in schools you would eventually find us white suburbanites trying to move back to Detroit and one of the best school systems in the state. It is hard for me to concoct a logical, good reason why the Governor did not do this. The only reason that I can imagine is immoral.
Fri, 02/26/2016 - 1:46pm
Dr. Baugh has authored a very important work that is perhaps as important today, if not more so, than the case was during the 70's. The importance of this case has to a great extent been lost to even the most learned practitioners in legal circles. Two significant aspects of the case were the remedies and what it sought to resolve: 1.) "the District Court found that in its decree it would be necessary to include components such as reading, in-service teacher training, testing, and counseling, and that the cost of these additional components would be the responsibility of the Detroit School Board and State of Michigan" and 2.) ...and the remedy was designed to correct the conditions that were found to be unconstitutional. Let’s not overlook the Voc-Tech Center’s, just as important today with the focus on C-STEM. Not coincidentally, over 100 reports and studies over the past seven years concur in part, if not all, of these remedies for advancing success management strategies in economically distressed school districts. While I haven't read her book, I support her premise, having been an active integral part of the case as the state director of LULAC, filing an amicus to intervene on behalf of the Hispanic community to protect bi-lingual education and preserve the protected status of Hispanics under federal law. We presently find ourselves mired in mediocrity, in the pursuit of adequacy in an environment calling for excellence and equity. Equity was the objective then and forty years later remains the front burner issue in education. The previously referenced studies and reports are replete with great research and recommendations save the most important one; how to pay for them. School districts on average find themselves with 15% less to spend today then they had 10 years ago. Some as high as 30% less. Which is why I have dedicated the past several years developing a Resource Equity solution that provides for, is aligned with and is responsive to every major education initiative of the past seven years, up to and including ESSA, the 2016 National Ed Tech Plan, Future Ready Schools and Computer Science for All. The solution incorporates elements that uphold and provide for the original remedies as set forth in the case. The solution was presented to the Michigan State Board of Education a year ago and at the NCEBC conference. Dr. Baugh is to be commended.
Fri, 02/26/2016 - 5:29pm
Where is the Student Responsibility discussion? Where is the Parent Responsibility discussion? The majority of Detroit Student are Black and live in poverty. Here is a Secret, nobody talks about - there is not an Educational Model that can successfully educate mass quantities of Children that live in American-defined poverty! When you have ~75% of the children in Detroit born to unwed mothers without a family earned income structure, education is not a priority. It is nearly impossible for those children from Generational Poverty to break the cycle. Plain and Simple fact. Former Mich Supreme Court Justice and Former Mich Health & Human Services Director Maura Corrigan mentioned on numerous occasions that when she would visit Detroit Schools, she would ask the student if anybody was married in their families or if they knew anybody that was married and the vast majority said NO. Also, WJR radio in Detroit recently interviewed DPS High School Student with the question - if they had the magic wand or the authority to change DPS what would it be - many of the student said get rid of the classroom violence and bullying. Until the Student Body, the Resident Culture changes, there will be no positive outlook or change to Detroit Public Schools.
Sat, 02/27/2016 - 11:15pm
I'm a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher. I've lived in Detroit, and now am in a nearby suburb, You are obviously unaware of the difficulties of Black Detroiters--Racism, shortage of public transportation, and the differences of funding between suburban and city schools. It is also easier for Black women to find employment than Black men. I agree with P. Peitner. Don't blame the victims.
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 5:15pm
Jo, In you experience did you find that there were students that succeed, that failed, that were in between even though they were in the same classroom and came from the same community environment? I ask this because reflecting on my experience it seemed that throughout my K-12 education that there was such a separation in my classes. In fact I was an ‘in betweener’. It seems that the student has a role, with responsibilities, in the learning process. It is how the student fulfills those responsibilities would influence their academic success. If your experience has shown that the student doesn't have a role then as the article suggests it is all about the system and others.
Tue, 01/08/2019 - 12:20am

Not blaming the victims but a lack of two parent homes is a MAJOR factor here. It’s a ruthless cycle, Don’t have a baby if you aren’t married and can’t support that baby.

Sun, 02/28/2016 - 4:22pm
Dr. Joyce; You are scanning over 100 years. I have scanned the 1st nine comments before I will scan your article and comment. I grew up (K-12) in Detroit's Marygrove neighborhood, went to GMI (via Cadillac-Det) in Flint, and then to UofM (AA). From there to GM Research in 1960. In 1962, I went to Cadillac and then NASA in Cleveland. and, in 1962/3 went back to school and enrolled in a doctoral program. Beginning in 1966, I did further tours of study and duty in Seattle WA, Long Island NY, Pittsburg PA, and then finally 30 years at Ford- Dearborn while residing in Livonia. And, now I've been retired for 15 years in Northern MI (not to far from CMU). To say the least I've been troubled and more than sad re Detroit's experiences in recent years. I knew what the school system "was like (via direct 1942-1962 involvements)", and then what the situation "became like (via 1973- 2004 parent-teacher involvements)." And, the 10 years in transit through other admirable (or just comparable) locations added exposures for perhaps making some good assessments about what "the parameters associated with DPS changes" were. Now, I just read your summary. First, I was surprised that your Century in the making was basically the 1830s-1930s. And, I wasn't born yet. At the beginning of our next Century (1930-2030s), I did have some experiences with remedial attempts, as I was at Mumford (an experimental Detroit HS- re diversity, as I recall). Through associations with various friends, I knew some re other neighborhoods on the West side and their High Schools (maybe 5-6). And, when returning to the Detroit area in 1973, I did find some more marked differences. I, also experienced some direct experiences with arrangements to "share and/or mix" administrative practices, and was on a local School Board Advisory committee. Further, I would add that Detroit industries and businesses relied "in totality" on residents from the city and suburbs for successes, and that their organizational cultures "all" worked very hard to create mutual respect, harmony, and dignity for everyone. So, I would agree that the budgetary matters were mostly responsible for developments. And, must add, that I feel the human enterprises supporting the tax base were especially encumbered with certain "new/upstart" laws and obligations that made it difficult to make ends meet. Just, IMHO. Thanks for your article.
Lou LaFollette
Sun, 02/28/2016 - 5:10pm
It has always been my understanding that the race riots began the "white flight" to the suburbs which was finalized with the judicially enforced school busing. Realtors know that location near school is a primary objective of family home buyers. When the courts required busing of children cross town to a distant school, families moved. I remember Cass Tech as being considered an outstanding school. I participated in several efforts to enhance Detroit schools. One was an effort in the 60's to involve parents in school programs by getting them involved during early education, when parents are more likely to participate and to encourage their continued participation. Another was an effort by Governor Romney's Youth Commission to create universal daycare/preschool programs in the state as a part of the public school system. We had the space since school populations were declining. High school students could help to "staff" the programs and those students could learn about child growth and development in the process. A mixture of federal/state/local funds would be used and it was estimated that it would cost less than it cost to provide drivers education to all high school juniors (which was provided at the time.) I also remember a proposal to offer educational programs for young males which would make it easier to model their behavior and would eliminate the desire to impress the young females. All of these proposals came to naught, but it was not for lack of trying. One good piece of information: Dr. Ben Carson is a product of the Detroit Public Schools.
Ms. Anonymous
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 12:41pm
Since those in the know realize that poverty is the problem, let's look at the major differences between children in poverty and those who are not in poverty (and thus, are more likely to succeed in school). Chances are those living in poverty are experiencing one, some or all of the following: hunger, lack of sleep, a home with no or little heat, a single-parent household where the mother is hard at work but often cannot be with her child after school, possible drug use, possible violence, possible neglect (all likely a result of poverty), and more. If the foundations in Michigan would step up to the plate and take a look at how the Harlem Zone in New York operates, and enable the Detroit kids to get the things they lack (those things listed above) -- along with tutoring and mentoring -- they would definitely succeed. I understand anyone putting up the money would most likely want accountability to ensure their money is put to good use; who wouldn't want the children to actually learn as a result? So, there should be a group of people to run the district who have background in making this type of thing happen and who are willing to be held accountable. Many of these children will need a second home, i.e., a place to feel they belong in instances where their families cannot be there for them. This is what makes the Harlem Zone work -- comfort, and the necessities for about fifteen hours a day every day. It only makes sense that what these kids need is what the rest of us simply take for granted. Let's do it, Michigan!
Mon, 02/29/2016 - 6:08pm
You seem to be saying that the only difference between academic success and failure in K-12 is the financial status of the parents. If the family income is less than $30,000 per year then all of the children are hungry, cold, go without sufficient sleep, and have a single parent thus with all those conditions they fail in school. That would leave me to understand that if a student was not poor, they would not live in any of those conditions so they would succeed in school. If your analysis is correct then a school in a 'poor' neighborhood the students will all fail and in a non 'poor' neighborhood they will succeed. I have to limited experience but it seems that in each classroom [independent of location] there are those that succeed, fail, and are in between, that suggests to me that academic success is not just 'poor' and non 'poor.' If academic performance varies in spite of family economics then there maybe other factors to consider. Maybe we should be looking for a commonality that crosses family economics. One of the most apparent common elements is that that the students are children. I wonder if you have considered the individual student and if they have a role/responsibilities in the learning process. I wonder if you have considered the influences on the children such as the impact of their micro-cultures [friends, peers, parents, neighbors, community,etc.] on their desire to learn and willingness to sacrifice to learn. As I recall it seems there are some successful schooling approaches in New York and other 'poor' communities that credit the success of the students academically on expectations, on students desire to learn, on the students willingness and sacrifice to study, and how that changes with who has greater influence on them [it changes their micro cultures]. I surely don't discount the impact of hunger, cold, sleep, and family stability, but I am not so sure it is the answer to the learning success or failure of our children.