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Michigan lawmakers approve emergency aid for Detroit schools

March 26, 2016 at 5:18 PM EDT
As Detroit schools slip toward bankruptcy, the Michigan state legislature approved almost $50 million in emergency aid to keep Detroit's public schools open through the end of this year. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike joins Megan Thompson to discuss.

MEGAN THOMPSON, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  This week in Michigan, the state legislature approved almost $50 million in emergency aid to keep Detroit’s public schools open and operating through the end of this school year, and a spokesman for Governor Rick Snyder says he will sign the bill early next week.

The move comes as Detroit’s school district has slipped toward bankruptcy even as the city itself has emerged from bankruptcy.

Joining me to discuss the challenges ahead is “New York Times” reporter Kate Zernike.

So, Kate, can you start off by painting a picture for us, just how bad is it for Detroit’s public schools and what has caused this?

KATE ZERNIKE, NATIONAL REPORTER, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Well, Detroit, like Michigan as a whole, their recession has lost population, so you have a school district that once had 150,000 children, public school district and now has about 45,000 children.  So, it’s really the size of it has gone down, as children have left the city the money that goes with those children from the state and from the local tax revenues goes with the children to charter schools, suburban districts, so you just have much less money coming in the district because there are so many fewer students.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  And has a similar thing happened in other districts across the country?

KATE ZERNIKE:  Well, I think in many ways Detroit is emblematic of what is happening in struggling urban districts.  Detroit, for instance, made a large bet on solving — on helping the charter schools, and a lot of charter schools, there was a state takeover, bottom 45 percent of performing schools are put into a state-controlled authority.

But as across the country, we haven’t seen state takeovers necessarily make that much of a difference.  For instance, in Newark, schools heavily controlled by the state of New Jersey for 20 years, really without much improvement there at all, same thing with Camden, New Jersey, you know, Los Angeles, there is a big bet on charter schools there.  So, it’s really — it’s, sort of, Detroit has all of the problems.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Are there cities that have a lot of kids going to charter schools that aren’t seeing this type of problem?

KATE ZERNIKE:  So, you look at a state like Massachusetts or a city like Boston, Boston public schools are doing well if you look at their national rankings, so are Boston charter schools.  D.C., Washington, D.C. has made enormous improvements in their charter schools and the public schools.

So, it’s not as though charter schools are necessarily a bad thing when they are done right, I just think in Detroit there has not been much of an effort to sort of figure out what schools do we need, what schools are performing well?  So, you have a lot of empty seats and there is no answer in looking at the city and saying, what schools do we need?  Where do we need schools?  Where should the money be going?

MEGAN THOMPSON:  So, we saw this infusion of $50 million that the legislature approved this week, but that’s really just a short-term solution in Detroit.


MEGAN THOMPSON:  I mean, what has to happen long-term to make sure the schools will be solvent?

KATE ZERNIKE:  Part of the proposal was that the governor who is a Republican and the mayor who is a Democrat are supporting something called Detroit Education Commission.  This commission would look and say where do we need schools, with where there is demand, where should we put the limited resources that we have?  This proposal unfortunately faces a pretty steep hurdle in the Michigan house, so I am not sure what will happen but that sort of — in Michigan, that’s the next discussion they’re going to be having.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Great.  Kate Zernike of “The New York Times” — thank you so much for being here.

KATE ZERNIKE:  Thanks, Megan.