Is $500 million enough to save Detroit's public schools?

Republican lawmakers in the Michigan House on Thursday approved a $500 million package to address the woes of Detroit's Public School system, but opponents say it falls short.

Tanya Moutzalias/AP
Kevin Casillas Jr., 4, walks through a puddle while holding a sign supporting his father, a Detroit Public School teacher, Monday, in Detroit. The Michigan legislature on Thursday approved a $500 million plan to stabilize the Detroit schools.

Michigan lawmakers approved a $500 million restructuring plan for Detroit Public Schools on Thursday, just days after a two-day sick-out by teachers protesting reports that the financially strapped district would be unable to pay them over the summer.

The Republican-controlled House presented the plan after 15 hours of deliberation involving private caucus meetings, declaring that the sum would not only ensure teachers’ pay over the coming break, but would also eliminate the district’s debt.

Bipartisan support for the package was not forthcoming, however, with Democrats failing to support the deal, lamenting its disregard for key measures included in proposals already passed by the Senate.

“The plan the House approved today puts Detroit kids first,” said state Rep. Aaron Miller (R). “It replaces the broken and ineffective Detroit Public Schools with a new administrative district that can start next school year debt free.”

Detroit’s public schools have been staggering under the weight of systemic problems for many years, riddled by patches of mold and dead rodents, with crumbling buildings sporting leaky roofs and buckling floors, but only in recent months has the situation received widespread attention, as The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo wrote in January:

Those conditions, plus overcrowded classrooms, classes taught by uncertified teachers, and declining pay, have long been a concern for teachers. But because of the outrage over children in nearby Flint, Mich., being poisoned by lead-tainted water, the cries from Detroit are suddenly resonating with a wider, more responsive audience.

The latest manifestations of the school district’s woes erupted earlier this week, when nearly 100 Detroit schools were forced to close because of "sick-outs," planned after teachers received news that the city would not pay them over the summer.

"While we recognize that this puts Detroit's parents and communities in a difficult situation, the district's broken promises and gross negligence leave us no choice," said Terrence Martin, the executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, during a press conference.

The Republican plan, which was unanimously opposed by Democrats, addresses the immediate concerns of the teachers regarding their summer pay, but opponents argue that it leaves fundamental issues unaddressed, such as a key part of the Senate-approved bill that would have created a commission with the authority to determine which schools should remain open and which should close.

“By rejecting the Detroit Education Commission in favor of more state-appointed control, House Republicans are not only rejecting a community-based, bipartisan solution, they are rehashing the same failed ideas of the last decade,” said state Rep. Pam Faris (D). “We’re irresponsibly throwing taxpayer dollars at this problem without actually fixing it.”

One key barrier to consensus is the role of charter schools, which Republicans say the Democratic proposals unduly disadvantage. Opponents of the GOP deal assert the opposite, that the newly approved measures unfairly favor those schools. 

“House Republicans had a chance to work in bipartisan fashion,” said state Rep. Fred Durhal III (D), "but instead they chose to pave their own path with corporate special interests that run for-profit schools here in Michigan."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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