Read these news briefs on Detroit and Flint, Michigan, Wichita, Kansas, Texas, and Puerto Rican schools. What do they have in common? You decide. See my answers at the end of the post.
Detroit: In May, Detroit's 2,600 public school teachers staged a two-day "sick-out" protesting against threats that the bankrupt school district would be unable to meet payroll after June. Ninety-four out of ninety-seven schools were forced to close.
For the last several years the Detroit school system has borrowed money to cover expenses. Debt payments have been rolled over and at the end of this school year the district will have a budget-deficit of $320 million. That does not even count $3.5 billion in long-term obligations such as teacher pensions, construction costs, and other outstanding debts. Many Detroit schools are physically falling apart. There is crumbling plaster, water damage, rats and roaches, and mold in the buildings.
According to the New York Times, the Detroit school system is in the worst financial shape of any school system in the country and is considering filing for bankruptcy. The City of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013-14, but that did not include the school system.
Since 2009, the Detroit school has been under the financial control of emergency managers appointed by Michigan's governor. In February, one of the managers was forced to resign after being implicated in the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Despite constant austerity plans, the financial situation has continued to worsen. In 2015, the Republican-controlled state legislature blocked a proposed $715 million aid package for the Detroit school district that was actually proposed by the state's Republican governor.
A big part of the problem in Detroit has been the proliferation of charter schools. As a result, the public school student population dropped from 167,000 in 2000 to fewer than 50,000 students today. Despite this, class size in grades six through twelve is expected to be thirty-eight students in the fall, ensuring that education will continue to deteriorate. In addition, to these problems, the situation is exacerbated by a declining local tax base as the impoverished city has gotten smaller and poorer.
Flint: Flint, Michigan has been in the news because of lead in its water supply caused by bad state policy decisions designed to save money at the expense of people. The Flint school system, already in dire straits, will have to address a wave of children who might be adversely affected by lead exposure. Lead exposure can increase the chance that children will have academic difficulties, behavior problems, and developmental delays.
According to the Detroit Free Press, "nearly 15% of the 5,400 kids in Flint Community Schools have been identified with special education needs. Of that number, 22% have been identified with a cognitive impairment -- a percentage that's far higher than the county and state averages." Only 19% of the school district's third graders are proficient in English language arts and Flint has a twenty-four percent dropout rate. Meanwhile, Flint schools are "weighted down by a $10-million deficit, academic struggles, enrollment declines of 53% since 2010 and years of cuts in staffing and programs." .The Flint school district, one of eleven Michigan school districts overseen by the state Treasury Department, has cut the equivalent of 18 full-time special education teachers in the last two years. Flint, like Detroit, has also seen its resources drained by a proliferation of charter schools in the area.
Wichita: In February, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the Republican-controlled state legislature's latest school financing scheme was unconstitutional. The court charged that the state government failed to provide equitable funding to public school districts. Its block grant program ignores variations in local resources and concentrations of at-risk students in certain districts. The Kansas state constitution requires that the "legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."
The court set a June 30 deadline for the state to resolve funding inequality that would require over $50 million in new direct state aid to poorer school districts. Part of the problem is that the state's "no tax" Republican governor and Republican controlled legislature face a budget shortfall of about $200 million. The state Governor is now threatening to impeach justices that ruled the school funding system promoted inequality.
Wichita public schools, the largest school district in Kansas, is a leader in the suit challenging the block grants. While Kansas as a whole has a relatively small Black and Latino population compared to other states, only seventeen percent, the Black and Latino population of Sedgwick County where Wichita is located is twenty-four percent, and the student population of Wichita public schools is sixty-six percent non-White.
Texas: Last week the Texas Supreme Court voted unanimously to keep in place the state's convoluted school funding system, probably because none of the judges could understand it. The nine Texas injustices, all Republicans, left school funding to the discretion of the Republican dominated state legislature. Texas schools spend an average of $9,559 per student, well under the national average of $12,040. In 2015 the Lone Star state ranked 38th among the states and District of Columbia in per pupil spending, but in recent years it has ranked as low as 46th. More than half of the students in Texas public schools are Hispanic and over 60% are considered economically disadvantaged. This is the sixth law suit over school funding by Texas school districts against the state government since 1984.
Texas's Republican controlled state cut education funding by $5.4 billion in 2011. Although much of this money was later restored, one-third of the Texas school districts receive less state aid than they did before the cuts. There will be new school budget cuts this year because of a $3.8 billion reduction in property and business taxes. Texas could also lose $4 billion in federal aid if it blocks transgender students from using bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.
Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico is a "commonwealth' of the United States, not a state, but supposedly not a colony. Its residents are United States citizens. The island is in desperate financial trouble. It owes $72 billion in debts, which is almost as much as its annual state income. Unemployment on the island is over twelve percent and the poverty rate is forty-five percent. Many of its problems were caused by changing federal laws, the United States governs Puerto Rico, that have crippled the island's ability to find a solution to its debt crisis and vulture capitalist hedge funds that gobbled up Puerto Rico debt at bargain prices and are demanding payment at face value. A Last Week Tonight with John Oliver broadcast featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda gives a clear overview of the crisis and is worth watching.
Since 2014, the government of Puerto Rico has closed 135 schools. Class size has risen in some cases to 40 students in a room. Because of the island's current financial difficulties, another 400 public schools may close. In addition, there are plans to turn as many as fifteen percent of the island's public schools into charter schools every three years. Hedge funds that control Puerto Rico's debt are demanding that the Puerto Rican government close the schools, end university subsidies, and fire teachers until the hedge funds are paid. In November 2015, thousands of Puerto Rico's teachers went on a one-day strike to protest against the decimation of the public school system.
Detroit, Flint, Wichita, Texas, and Puerto Rico are not the only the only governments or school systems that face budget deficits and possible bankruptcy. St. Louis, MO (student population 86% Black and Latino), and Jacksonville, FL (student population in the countywide school district is 64% non-White), Washington DC (student population 84% Black and Latino), East Cleveland, OH (student population is 99% Black and Latino), and Jefferson County, AL (students in Birmingham are 98% Black and Latino), are all in deep financial trouble and face impending economic collapse.
So what do schools in all these places have in common?
Severe economic difficulties.
Overwhelmingly minority student populations.
Charter schools that sap public dollars.
Hostile Republican state administrations in Michigan and Kansas and a hostile Republican controlled Congress overseeing Puerto Rico that disregard the education of their children.
Every one of these school systems has educational emergencies that demand immediate national action and that are largely being ignored.