This story about Detroit schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
DETROIT—Taking a trip down memory lane from the sidewalk in front of Western International High School, former civics teacher Keith Johnson shared the school’s ghost story, a tall tale about a child who died in a 1935 fire there. Having taught at the school decades ago, Johnson wanted to stop by his “educational home” to explain what has happened in Detroit’s schools.
The ghost story was a digression, but a telling one. While no record of a student death exists, the story of a burned boy wandering the school’s halls lives on in a city where pain from the past largely dictates the present. Though, perhaps, not the future.
With a staggeringly long to-do list left for them by state authorities who until recently ran the city’s education system, Detroit school leaders aim to use hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money to supercharge a nascent rebuilding effort. If Congress approves the multi-trillion-dollar spending bill pushed by the White House, millions more could flow to a district long held up as a case study in how structural racism, mismanagement and poverty can break an American school system.
Ghosts aside, Johnson, who retired as president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers in 2015, had plenty of true and truly troubling stories of more recent vintage that speak to Detroiters’ struggle to provide decent spaces for learning. One that stands out: Leaders at his majority Black school once arranged for an exchange with a mostly white suburban high school in Walled Lake, located some 30 miles north of Western International.
Some suburban parents wouldn’t let their children come into Detroit — too dangerous, Johnson recalled and, unsaid, too Black. But some did come and then it was Johnson’s students’ turn to visit the suburbs. When they got there, they found a school building far more comfortable than the chilly, creaking one provided to them. Everything was new, and still working, he remembers them saying.
Western International is a three-story brick school, rebuilt after the 1935 fire with Depression-era federal money for public works projects. It appears stately from the outside but was in considerable disrepair inside back when Johnson taught here in the 1980s, he said.
“When you go into a classroom, you want children there to be in an environment that’s conducive to learning,” said Johnson, now 67. “If you’ve got water coming across the floor, if you’ve got vermin, if you’ve got lead in the water, these are things that need to be addressed.”
Johnson was leading the teachers’ union in 2011, when Western got a $28 million renovation, paid for with federally backed bonds. The new construction added a swimming pool and computer science classrooms, but not air conditioning. Johnson is proud of the renovation that, in part because he pushed for it, saw the restoration of an old flourish — a small cupola and weather vane.
“When you go into a classroom, you want children there to be in an environment that’s conducive to learning.” — Keith Johnson, retired teacher and union leader
While a school district assessment found Western will need $13.5 million in repairs by 2023, it is in better shape than many schools in Detroit, and in much of the United States.
Detroit made front page news in 2016 when the teachers walked out to draw attention to the dilapidated condition of some of the schools. Photos and video surfaced of buckled and moldy floors, broken windows, and mice, rats and cockroaches in classrooms.
But despite the shocking images, Detroit is not much of an outlier when it comes to crumbling schools. A 2020 study by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s research arm, found 54 percent of public school districts needed to update or replace buildings. Many schools had critical structural problems; about 10 percent of districts reported that at least half of their schools have walls or foundations in need of repair.
Most funding for school construction and renovation comes from bonds paid for with property tax increases. In communities that can’t or won’t pass a bond, rebuilds like the one that reinvigorated Western are difficult if not impossible to finance, even in the 36 states that provide some state money to build and rebuild school facilities.
“You have this real patchwork on how states fund school construction, and it generally falls to the districts,” said Kristin Blagg, a senior research associate at Urban Institute whose research topics include school funding. “Slightly more than half of states provide some state support, but the way that support is implemented is really variable.”
School leaders, including those in Detroit, say that a new wave of federal money for school construction can address those disparities. Some iterations of President Joe Biden’s economic plan have included the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act, which would dole out $130 billion to repair schools over the next decade. That money is not included in the Senate’s compromise infrastructure bill, now sitting before the House. With negotiations ongoing, whether the act will be included in a Democrats-only $3.5 trillion spending bill remains an open question; more than a dozen of the nation’s leading education organizations and unions wrote Congressional leaders in August asking that the act be included.
Back in Detroit, school leaders don’t plan to wait. They are moving ahead with plans to use at least $543 million in federal coronavirus pandemic relief money to fix school buildings in need of repair. That money represents the biggest investment in Detroit’s public schools in decades.
Without the federal money, there is little Detroit leaders can do. Unlike almost every other school district in the country, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, as a practical matter, has no taxing authority; property taxes collected for schools in Detroit go to pay down debts accrued by the old school district. (To keep the old district’s red ink from staining the state’s books, the Detroit Public Schools Community District was created to run the schools while the old district simply pays down debt.) The new district cannot float a bond to fund school construction or renovations. And Michigan, like 13 other states, provides no support for school construction or rehabilitation. The end result in Detroit is a district with some beautiful new buildings, some in decent shape and many with problems that hamper learning.
Loosed from state-imposed management in 2017, the district began scraping together money to begin fixing the schools in the worst condition, spending tens of millions of dollars each year to address a repair shortfall pegged at $1.5 billion — three times the amount leaders are hoping to pull from federal Covid relief money.
For now, children walk elementary school floors that are buckled so badly they appear to have waves. Mice, rats and cockroaches infest some buildings, according to a 2018 review conducted by the district. Indoor temperatures can fall below freezing in the winter and rise into the 90s in the spring.
Ely Vasquez, 18, attended one of Detroit’s premier schools, Cass Technical High School, a magnet school serving 2,400 students that moved into a glass-and-steel building 17 years ago. Vasquez nonetheless had to contend with gas leaks, lead in the water and a ventilation system that failed to adequately heat or cool the school, which, built at a cost of more than $120 million, is one of Detroit’s newest. And yet Cass Tech was an improvement on Samuel Gompers Elementary-Middle School, which Vasquez attended as a younger teen. Vasquez’s sisters go to Gompers now and report broken sinks, missing bathroom doors and other defects.
Vasquez, a zine illustrator and organizer with a community action organization called 482Forward Youth Collective, recounted visits to schools in nearby majority-white districts like Ann Arbor. That district recently passed a $1 billion bond to improve school facilities that, for the most part, are already in better repair than those in Detroit. Ann Arbor also serves less than half as many students. In those well-maintained, well-funded schools, Vasquez, whose family came to Detroit from Mexico, saw America’s racial wealth divide made plain.
$1.5 billion — amount needed to complete all school facilities upgrades and repairs in Detroit
1.1 million — the number of residents who have left Detroit since the 1950’s.
“Who wants to go to a horrible environment and learn? That shows that everybody doesn’t care about you,” said Vasquez, an aspiring social worker. “The message I take is that I’m not important and I don’t matter, because I’m not the majority.”
Detroit’s history has been shaped by the same kind of structural racism that has led many American school districts to operate crumbling school buildings in which students like Vasquez spend their childhoods.
Having lost 1.1 million residents since peaking in the 1950s, Detroit, with about 675,000 residents, is still about the size of Boston or Washington, D.C. The decades-long decline has left Detroit with too much of everything except money. The city is dotted with empty elementary schools and sprawling, long-vacant high school campuses.
“Who wants to go to a horrible environment and learn? That shows that everybody doesn’t care about you.” Ely Vasquez, student.
The state first took control of Detroit’s schools in 1999, appointing the first in a series of emergency managers and exacerbating the racial divide between Detroit and the rest of Michigan as the overwhelmingly white state government took over the city government and school district in the 78 percent Black city for most of the next 17 years. The American Civil Liberties Union and others ultimately sued the state, describing the law that allowed Michigan to appoint emergency managers for financially troubled cities and districts as a racist attack on the civil rights of the state’s Black residents.
Few deny that the district’s finances were badly handled before the takeover — Johnson described “a perpetual blend of fiscal mismanagement.” One 1994 facilities bond for $1.4 billion was squandered on a handful of high-priced projects like the Cass Tech rebuild. But state management failed to resolve the issues. Instead, more than 100 schools were closed in the 2000s, a decade that saw Detroit lose more people than Hurricane Katrina-hit New Orleans.
There is suspicion among some who have watched Detroit’s school system closely that some of the state managers, particularly those appointed by Republican governors, came to Detroit to serve as the school system’s undertakers, not its caretakers.
“They were really aiming for a system that would get rid of the public school system,” said David Arsen, a professor of educational administration and policy at Michigan State University who studies school funding in the state. “There’s never been an American city in which schools were closed at this pace. They cut expenditures on a massive scale, and the deficits kept getting bigger.”
“At our students’ school, you had rodents dancing on desks.” Dana Dacres, parent.
By the time the final emergency manager pulled out in 2016, the district was broke. Still, the return to local control helped Detroit’s public school system regain its footing. A school board seated in 2017 hired a superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, a dynamic career school administrator currently drawing plaudits. By early 2020, before the pandemic, enrollment was up for the first time in recent memory.
One of the new district’s first actions was a detailed review of its school facilities. It found many that need attention the district cannot afford to give.
School funding in Michigan is heavily managed by the state — all operations funding comes from the state in most districts and state law constrains property tax increases for school improvements. That centralized approach contrasts with the more locally-led character of the rest of the public education system in a state long influenced by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigander. Students here are free to attend schools in neighboring districts or charter schools. Funding follows each student, which means districts with shrinking populations like Detroit’s face ever-decreasing budgets.
Spending per student has also fallen steeply in the state, with per-pupil support declining 22 percent between 2002 and 2015, before rising in recent years. That decline in funding has been accompanied by academic stagnation. Michigan ranks last among the states in student proficiency improvement since 2003, scoring lower than would be predicted based on social and economic conditions here.
“Detroit, without question, is the most chaotic education setting in the country,” Michigan State’s Arsen said. But despite the difficulty of their task, he thinks the new, local leadership is “running a pretty tight ship” and that Vitti is doing a good job, “but he can’t fix the facilities.”
At a meeting in early June, Vitti ran through the budget for the coming school year from the stage in the auditorium of Renaissance High School. The sterile, pristine space — Renaissance, opened in 2005, was another of the pricey schools built with the 1994 bond — played host to the district’s first in-person meeting since the pandemic had begun. The school mascot, a phoenix, the mythical bird symbolizing resurrection, fit Vitti’s tone.
The district’s financial position, though much improved, remains tenuous, Vitti said. His staff and the elected board — seven women of color — have been pushing the state to free their hands. At present, though, the windfall of federal Covid relief money is all that staved off staff cuts. And, Vitti reiterated, steadily increasing enrollment is all that will hold them off for good and ensure that no more schools have to be closed.
“What we won’t do,” he said at that June meeting, “is just take away from the community without giving something back.”
Neither Vitti nor anyone in his administration would make themselves available for interviews. Some close to the administration described concerns that publicity could interfere with the negotiations happening in the state capital over the federal money.
Decisions made in the state capitol or in Washington, D.C., where the future of the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act will be decided, will dictate the district’s next move.
Walking the grounds surrounding East English Village Preparatory Academy, a magnet high school, Johnson talked about what could be. He pointed out features of the modern, nine-year-old campus: The computer lab. The nurse’s office. The gym. The auditorium. He pushed for this school’s construction when he served as teacher’s union president, taking the emergency manager at the time into the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the crumbling school East English Village replaced.
“Our kids in Detroit, they deserve to have facilities like this,” Johnson said of East English. “Whether you’re talking about a 4-year-old or an 18-year-old, kids’ perspectives are very limited and very concise. They know what they see. They don’t know why it is the way it is, they just know what it is.”
Half of Detroit’s children live in poverty. Johnson teared up recalling a visit to a student who was living in an abandoned house. A school building should show a child they deserve more in life than a cold mattress in a moldering duplex, he said.
Much of the rehabilitation money Vitti’s team has secured has gone to schools with the most obvious needs and most dangerous conditions. Those aren’t the only schools that need attention though, said Dana Dacres, a school volunteer whose five children attend Detroit public schools.
“At our students’ school, you had rodents dancing on desks,” Dacres said.
A few years ago, Dacres noticed a smell “like a stable” at Burton International Academy, where her younger children go to school It turned out the barnyard notes were coming from the little boys’ bathroom, where urinals installed years before were too high for the kindergartners and first graders to accurately reach. Some nudging at the district office got the children a stepstool and eliminated the smell.
Dacres, who joined the push to rebuild Detroit’s schools after the 2016 work stoppage, said she and other advocates have been pushing for years to have Burton’s broken air conditioning repaired. Without it, students have to attend summer school in a different building. But that, unlike a bathroom step stool, would cost money the district doesn’t yet have. The difference is that Dacres now believes Vitti and other district leaders are doing what they can.
“If you cc Vitti on something, trying to get something done, he’s on it,” Dacres said.
Seated at a trendy metal patio table off the well-tended green and garden at the city’s new Beacon Park, Dacres described waiting on the same downtown block for the bus home from high school two decades ago. She remembers panhandlers and sex workers. Now, the city’s downtown is in the middle of a renewal fueled by philanthropy and corporate money. Downtown isn’t the only area of the city seeing a bit of a revival, but that growth has been uneven and has yet to reach many of the neighborhoods where people live.
The “New Detroit” has not yet consequentially touched Detroit’s public schools either. The problem is structural, financial, and, unless the federal government comes through with a significant infusion of cash, unresolved
“The Bible says, ‘Money answereth all things,’” Dacres said. “And that’s what would help.”