O'Keefe in the News

Detroit Public Schools – Time for a Change

Detroit Public Schools – Time for a Change

November 9, 2016

As published in dbusiness Magazine by Patrick O’Keefe

Two big changes over the last 30 years have been the rise: internet shopping versus making in-store purchases and the use of cell phones versus land line services. In both cases, industry leaders had to change the way they operated in a radical way in order to survive.

I would argue we have come to that crossroads with public education – the costs of which continue to rise, while the effectiveness of any educational metric continues to decline.

One of our state’s recent challenges revolved around the debate surrounding the restructuring of Detroit Public Schools. The discussion focused mainly on money and governance, but I would offer the proposition that neither one of these areas is the solution to the problem.

The discussion should have centered on this question: Why does it cost twice as much to poorly educate a child in the City of Detroit? Arguably, “twice as much” is only what has been funded, and doesn’t include deficit spending. In fact, considering the unfunded deficit of $515 million over the last 10 years, the cost per student is much higher.

In the turnaround business, in which I have practiced for more than 30 years, adding more money to a losing enterprise without making some form of structural change is the equivalent of pouring more gas on a raging fire.

The recent agreement by the Michigan Legislature to provide additional funds to DPS essentially moved the majority of the money from one pocket to the other. Very little found its way to the classroom. The debate – and consternation – of the funding was, at best, form over substance.

What I see is a lack of intestinal fortitude to make the proper structural changes to benefit students. Paying post-retirement benefits and even funding a few more teachers isn’t going to address the lack of discipline in the classroom and the challenging after-school environments in which Detroit children must function, including the lack of nutrition and a safe place to study and succeed.

I once heard a Detroit leader say that only one in four students entering ninth grade in DPS graduates. Later on he mentioned that 80 percent of adults without a high school education end up in the penal justice system. If you do the math, this extrapolates into the possibility of 60 percent of our DPS ninth-graders ending up in jail.

So what are the solutions? Arguably, the concept of a neighborhood school may no longer be practical in a torn city the size of Detroit. Instead, a consolidation of the learning effort may be required. This is the dynamic one faces when providing public safety, lighting, and other services outside a critical mass of population to support such activity. Consolidation of services and centralization of schools must be part of the reform.

Also of vital consideration is the dynamic of a poor classroom atmosphere (lack of enforced discipline) and a poor after-school environment. This might be best mitigated by introducing Monday-through-Friday boarding schools. It would keep children out of the peril of certain neighborhoods and provide them with a safe environment in which to learn.

Boarding schools may sound harsh and draconian, but I ask the naysayers: Why is it a good model for private schools like Cranbrook and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, which have rich histories of successfully boarding and teaching students? Many of the finest private schools in the world board students.

The gatekeepers of the state budget may say, “How can we afford to do that?” My response is this: Faced with the prospect of paying triple the cost of comparable schools, aren’t the dollars already there? Not to mention the disturbing fact that we spend almost three times as much on housing our prisoners as we spend on students.

Our prisoner population gets three free meals a day, a roof over their head, health care, and educational training of some sort to the tune of $2 billion annually. This number will continue to rise as criminals live longer.

We need to give our schoolchildren a chance and provide them with the tools for sustaining a productive life as heads of household and taxpayers. There are too many 40-year-old grandmothers unable to reverse the tide of previous generations and the endless cycle of poverty.

Education is power, and power provides economic mobility. Providing public safety and quality public education are the first steps to growing “for sale” housing. Rooftops and traffic attract retailers and economic growth. Economic growth generates tax dollars, and tax dollars fuel the sustainability of cities. What we need is a brutally honest discussion about public education in our urban districts. As adults, we are stewards for the next generation. We owe our young people a real solution. The status quo isn’t working.