The vanishing DPS student

Jan 27, 2013 by

Bill Johnson – The erosion of students — the tax base of Detroit Public Schools — continues unabated. The precipitous shrinkage is such that it’s just a matter of time before there won’t be enough left for DPS to justify its existence.

A deficit elimination plan submitted to the state by DPS Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts reveals that 28 more schools will have to be closed by 2016. Declining enrollments and excess building capacity are to blame for the ominous trend that should propel the DPS management team to get out of the education business. Odds are the district won’t survive if Roberts stays the course.

Projections have DPS enrollment falling by  almost 13,000 students in the next two years, down from the approximately 51,000 curently enrolled. Put in perspective, in 2000 the district had about 150,000 students. By 2010, that number had slipped to 75,000.

While the district has put some buildings out of service recently, the anticipated downsizing of the district’s physical plant doesn’t begin to reflect how severe the drop in DPS enrollment has been from its peak of 298,000 in 1966.

Previous school officials resisted bringing the number of schools in line with the shrinking population, believing that smaller schools, not fewer schools, best serve students’ needs. Saving money was a low priority in the decision to close nearly empty and poorly maintained facilities.

Politics also came into play. The more schools, the more need for principals, department heads, secretaries, operating engineers and para-professionals. Unions are known to be part of the organized opposition out of fear that fewer schools typically make for larger classrooms.

Pressure to preserve neighborhoods was another prime reason the district shied away from barricading outdated and underused structures. However, massive shifts in population, abandonment, vandalism and razing of houses and apartment buildings have left older parts of the city in ruins. Libraries and schools are the last to go. Residents who remain also see a neighborhood without a school as an undesirable place to locate.

Of course, fewer students mean fewer dollars for education. The deficit elimination plan forecasts a lost of $170 million in state revenue the next three school years, with the budget shrinking from just over $1 billion to $547 million. Included in anticipated budget cuts are hundreds of teaching jobs, nonteaching positions, support services staff, principals and clerks.

Today, less than half of the estimated 100,000 school-age children who live in the city attend DPS. The district’s worse performing schools were spun off into the much celebrated but underperformng Education Achievement Authority.

Parents, though, seem disinterested in the education delivery system Roy Roberts has tried to bring to the table, which brings DPS to another historic threshold.

The district must immediately restore some dignity and purpose to its mission. Roberts has an obligation to focus on accomplishing the basics of education with the best use of the public’s money. That mandate comes with an imperative to give parents and students real access to good schools.

Increasingly, parents are finding the “good schools” they need in the suburbs, or with schools of choice and charter schools. Public opinion polls reveal that Detroiters believe “franchise” schools give parents and students a greater sense of ownership and pride, while offering more alternatives and competition to failing public schools.

I have no doubt that Robert has the will to complete the politically unpalatable but necessary task of closing more schools. But that does not solve the problem of the “vanishing student” –it exacerbates it. And he won’t find the answer until he uses what power he has left to break from the discredited central management style that stifles meaningful academic change.

This we know: Parents are demanding a greater role in choosing the right school for their children. Sooner, rather than later, Roberts must deal with the imperative of removing the barriers to choice and replace bureaucratic malaise with educational opportunity.

Bill Johnson is an award-winning writer, former chief-of-staff for the Wayne County Commission, and a Detroit consultant. Email:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Posts


Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.