Why Detroit Students Don’t Go to School

“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.”

Former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan once called Detroit, Michigan “ground zero” for education reform. Despite new attendance policies that could have absent students and their parents actually prosecuted in court, more than two-thirds of students are “chronically absent.” The national average is 13% . In the 2011-2012 school year the average high school student in Detroit Public Schools missed 46 days of school. (Detroit Free Press).

The young people of Detroit have resoundingly rejected the one institution that was created with the sole intention of their self-empowerment: free public education. How did this happen?

It may surprise you to hear that there was a time when Detroit bustled with optimism.  The “Motor City” was once the fourth largest metropolitan area in the U.S; it had vibrant department stores, world class art museums, and a thriving, multi-racial middle class. At one time DPS (Detroit Public Schools) had 300,000 students. The population growth  forced DPS to rapidly expand in order to accommodate all the the new students.

This came to an end in the late sixties and the early seventies when whites moved from the inner-city to the suburbs taking their tax dollars with them. The Detroit School Board consciously drew school attendance zones along lines that maximized racial segregation.

The struggling district saw a continually declining rate of enrollment and were stuck with bill for the extra buildings. It may sound counter-intuitive but closing schools is actually really costly. Over the past few decades DPS has spent nearly 2 billion on school construction and maintenance. At the same time, it closed 195 schools.


Decades of financial mismanagement and rampant corruption led to serious funding problems. The already hurting schools were victims of fraud, wasteful spending, and abuse of power. The stories of theft in Detroit are so extravagant they almost seem comical: management to staff ratios of 1 to 1.6, a food services coordinator stealing more than $400 in lunchroom receipts, educators buying 160 unused BlackBerries and 11 motorcycles, dozens of principals getting millions of dollars in kickbacks, a clerical worker at an elementary school who wrote herself 15 checks for $25,000, stolen computers, the district paying $2.1 million per year for the health coverage of ineligible dependents. The list goes on.

And the corruption hasn’t wavered in the slightest. The Detroit Free Press reported as recently as May 2016 that charges were filed against the former DPS Director of Grant Development, who billed the district $1.275 million for tutoring services that never happened. These charges come directly after another DPS corruption case a few months ago that involved 14 people in a kickback scheme for a school supply vendor billing the district $2.7 million never delivering the supplies.

Formerly lauded principals, once great “heroes of education”, are still to this very day being put in jail for taking kickbacks.

There is without question an ongoing culture of corruption in Detroit schools. It is perhaps the ugliest face of American capitalist values: greed permitted at expense of children and their collective future.

Detroit has been left plagued with decrepit buildings, financial instability, and chronic lack of resources. Teachers have recently protested these conditions, which included moldy and rotten cafeteria food, ceiling leaks, warped floors, dead rodents, and bathrooms that are basically unusable. Class sizes can sometimes be 45 or 50 students per teacher. Teachers held “sick-outs” to call attention to the horrific conditions in the Detroit schools. 94 of the city’s 97 schools had to be closed because of the absences.

The Detroit Public Schools is an extreme example of what can happen in cities where industry leaves, poverty rises, the population rapidly decreases, and funding evaporates.

Michigan declared that the Detroit Public School system was in a “state of emergency” in 1999 and three additional times since.

Between 2000 and 2015, enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959, a decline of 71%. There are 93 active school buildings today, compared to over 380 in 1975. Many of the remaining schools are under capacity, with aging infrastructure that makes them expensive to operate.

Enrollment is expected to continue to drop.


In brief: Detroit schools are in a perpetual state of emergency.

And everyone knows it. That’s the problem. Today, kids in Detroit are going to the same schools that cheated both their parents and their grandparents out of a quality education.

Detroit has allowed for an intergenerational distrust of institutions. How can you expect students to have faith in a school that stole a future from their parents? How can you tell students their education is important when it’s clearly not important enough to get right?

In 2009 Robert Bobb, a state-appointed emergency manager of the school system, tried to do something about the absentee problem. He spent half a million dollars to launch a public relations campaign in hopes of getting students to enroll, re-enroll, and stay in school. The spokesperson for this campaign was (unfortunately) Bill Cosby.

It didn’t work.

Detroit has seen a half of a century of steep declines in conditions, enrollment, funding, and (worst of all) hope. To restore faith in the community it will take so much more than a brief PR campaign and the ‘quick-fix’ mentality of state-run emergency management.

Hope is only restored where faith is rewarded.

We must be willing to put in the years of difficult work to turn around Detroit schools. It took a long time to get here and therefore it’ll likely take a long time to get out. But we must sacrifice the time and the resources necessary to rebuild because for as long as we fail to care about a child’s education, so, too, will they.

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