So how did that state takeover work out for Detroit? Skip to content

So how did that state takeover work out for Detroit?

5 min read

Sometimes being a Johnny-Come-Lately can work out as an advantage. So it is with the proposed state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools: we can see how state takeovers have worked out elsewhere. So what happened in the state takeover of Detroit public schools?

Before the takeover

In 2009, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) labored under a $116 million deficit in that year’s budget. Only 16 percent of DPS juniors were proficient in math, and only 37 percent were proficient in reading, based on Michigan’s high-stakes state test.

It’s easy to forget that, especially in the late 2000s and early 2010s, not only Republicans but Democrats like President Barack Obama, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey were also bewitched by “education reform” — that siphoning money from underfunded public schools into charter schools and other corporate entities would somehow “fix” schools. It wasn’t Michigan’s current Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who first took over Detroit schools, but Democratic Governor Jennifer Grantholm, who appointed the first “emergency manager.” Democrats and Republicans alike were buying the argument that public-private partnerships would end deficits, turn around schools, and increase scores and graduation rates.

But that’s not what happened in Detroit.

The state takeover begins

In 2009, the first emergency manager was appointed: Robert Bobb, formerly the president of the Washington, D.C., Board of Education. Bobb cut the workforce by 25 percent, privatized janitorial and other services, and closed 59 public schools. He predicted he’d end fiscal year 2009 with a $17 million surplus; instead, according to the Detroit News, he ended the year with a $98 million deficit in that year’s numbers, and the overall debt load of the system had grown to $284 million.

The results after six years of takeover

At the time of the state takeover, the Motor City’s schools boasted 95,000 students — nearly as many as are served by JCPS. By the 2014–15 school year, DPS had half as many students: 48,900. According to The Detroit Free Press, every family that could flee to Detroit’s suburbs did so to escape the “reformed” DPS.

And the money? After six years of emergency management, The Detroit Free Press reported, the debt load stood at $483 million, even though 100 schools had been shuttered, and DPS was $81 million behind in payments to the public school employees’ pension system.

In addition to the budget cuts, the school closures, and the deficits, The Economist in January 2016 reported schools with black mold spreading over walls, collapsing ceilings, classrooms so frigid that students wore coats inside, and rat infestations.

And in the summer of 2016, DPS was so close to bankruptcy that the district used the public school employees’ escrow funds—money that employees had paid in over the school year, to be paid over the summer—and announced that teachers and other school employees would not be paid their own money over the summer! DPS teachers launched a sick-out in protest and got their money after a fight.

And what of today?

For the school year just ended, enrollment was down further, to a bit more than 47,000, according to DPS’s own website. The debt load has now ballooned to $3.5 billion, according to The Economist.

And what has happened to enrollment? Detroit has so many charter schools—Michigan allows an unlimited number and makes it virtually impossible to close them—that no school is at capacity and there are 30,000 more spots than pupils, according to The New York Times. Additionally, $4,400 of each $7,450-per-pupil allocation that DPS receives goes to service the towering debt, according to the Citizens Research Council, a Michigan think tank. Which explains the horrendous conditions in DPS schools.

And remember the hue and cry about test scores? Yeah, that should sound familiar. By 2014, 17 percent of Detroit charter school students were rated proficient in math (the same level as in 2009 for public school students), and students in public schools had dropped to 13 percent, according to The Detroit Free Press. Michigan State’s Education Policy Center released a study in 2016 called Who Governs Now? Takeovers, Portfolios, and School District Governancethat declared that the state takeover had “fallen short of promised academic gains.” The study also noted that Detroit parents and citizens have widely opposed the state takeover throughout.

The results have been so horrible that even Tea Party darling and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has recommended a return to a democratically elected school board, according to The Detroit Free Press.

A 2016 report by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, summed up the situation:

“Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live. …”

“Students do not have a right to literacy.”

DPS, under state management, has fallen so short of “promised academic gains” that DPS students sued Michigan Governor Snyder in 2016, arguing that they were deprived of their right to literacy due to “disinvestment” and “deliberate indifference” of the state and its emergency managers. The plaintiffs cited the school buildings’ horrendous conditions, the rats, the lack of textbooks, classroom overcrowding with 45 students in a room, and the rest. Snyder, amazingly, has responded by arguing that Detroit schoolchildren did not have a fundamental right to literacy.

So, students, what is today’s lesson? Learn from the Detroit Debacle, and keep the state’s hands off JCPS.


Comparison Table

Before the takeover After six+ years of takeover
  • 95,000 students
  • 16% juniors proficient in math
  • 37% juniors proficient in reading
  • Annual deficit of $116 million
  • 47,000 students
  • 100 schools closed, but still not at capacity because of all the charter schools (30,000 less students than space available in the buildings)
  • 17% of charter school students proficient in math
  • 13% of public school students proficient in math
  • $3.5 billion overall debt



Researched and written by Ivonne Rovira, a teacher in Jefferson County.


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Ivonne Rovira

Ivonne is the research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. She previously worked for The Miami Herald, the Miami News, and The Associated Press. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)