There aren’t necessarily a lot of bad things to say about Roy Roberts, the emergency financial manager overseeing Detroit’s dysfunctional traditional district who is leaving his post later this month. Throughout his two years on the job, Roberts did manage to build upon the work started by predecessor Robert Bobb by reducing the district’s annual deficits by 76 percent, as well as revamping some of the district’s operations. This was done in spite of battles with the district’s notoriously inept and corrupt board — which resented being placed under receivership by Michigan’s state government — sparring matches with the American Federation of Teachers’ Motor City affiliate, and the uncertainty that came late last year after Michigan voters backed an effort by public sector unions throughout the Wolverine State to roll back the authority granted to Roberts and other emergency financial managers a year earlier through Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful passage of Public Act 4, a beefed-up state takeover law. At least the person who will succeed Roberts will not have to deal with such spectacular financial mismanagement as the district acquiring five floors in the landmark Fisher Building for $24 million (or more than the $21 million price tag paid by its owner for the entire building) and taxpayer money being spent on 160 unused BlackBerry smartphones and 11 motorcycles.
Roberts can also be credited for taking some occasionally tough steps in dealing with the AFT local, which has managed to remain equally inept in handling its own eternal affairs while still opposing nearly effort by Roberts to actually improve the quality of teaching in district-operate schools. This included Roberts’ move last year to impose a collective bargaining agreement after it wouldn’t come to terms with the district on an expiring contract. [The move forced the Detroit local to seek the help of national AFT President Randi Weingarten, who eventually came to terms with Roberts about negotiating a new deal.] Roberts, along with Snyder, can take credit for launching the Educational Achievement Authority, the school overhaul effort modeled after New Orleans’ successful reform initiative that is overseeing the turnaround of 15 failure mills Detroit formerly operated; this effort will help advance much-needed school turnarounds that the district has no capacity to do with any manner of success.
Yet Roberts didn’t accomplish his most-important task: Overhauling Detroit Public Schools’ academic and financial operations, and ending its woeful status as the nation’s worst-performing big city district. Certainly Roberts wouldn’t have been able to take on such a gargantuan task in a tenth of a score — and in the minds of some, it is amazing that he accomplished as much as he did in so little time. At the same time, Roberts could have taken greater steps in putting Detroit on the path to ditching the traditional district model which is an underlying reason for its systemic dysfunction and failure. And it is up to Snyder and whoever he chooses to replace Roberts to finally break away from a form of educational governance that hasn’t served Motown children and families well for far too long.
Let’s be clear about this: Detroit Public Schools is only an educational going concern in name only. Sixty-nine percent of its fourth-graders and 57 percent of eighth-graders were functionally illiterate in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those students who have managed to overcome the district’s academic failures aren’t getting the comprehensive college preparatory curricula they need to stay on the course to completing the traditional college, technical school, or apprenticeships that make up higher education; just four percent of all middle-school students in Detroit — including 2.4 percent of black students — took Algebra 1 in 2009-2010. A mere 16 of the district’s 106 schools still in operation made Adequate Yearly Progress; even among those schools, just two of them received a letter grade of B or higher. It also remains one of the few districts that are so poor-performing that the five-year promoting power rates (based on eighth-grade enrollment), and four-year graduation rates (based on ninth-grade enrollment) for young white men are lower than the abysmal rates of high school completion for black and Latino peers; just seven percent of the young white men high school freshmen originally in Detroit’s Class of 2010 graduated on time, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education in its annual report on the impact of the education crisis on young men.
Meanwhile the district remains in dire financial straits for the long haul. Even as the district’s enrollment is expected to decline by 28 percent over the next five school years, it must still pay off $2.2 billion in long-term and short-term debt (as of 2012). There’s also the payments Detroit must make to the Wolverine State’s virtually busted defined-benefit pension, which officially reported $22.4 billion in pension deficits as of 2011 (which, based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis, is more likely $30.4 billion, or 36 percent more than officially reported), and another $26 billion in unfunded healthcare costs; Detroit will eventually have to pay more than the $102 million it contributed to the state’s pension in 2012. Meanwhile Detroit is paying the price for decades of fiscal fecklessness. The district’s successful move four years ago to gain voter approval to float $507 million in bonds (with interest rates as high as 7 percent) to fix existing buildings now seems particularly senseless given the shutdown of 31 schools during Roberts tenure alone (and even more under predecessor Bobb; while the district was able to reduce some interests costs by floating a new bond last year to pay off $338 million, the last thing it needed to do was throw good money after bad.
Considering the circumstances, Roberts needed to push harder to overhaul Detroit than he has done. The district employs 218 central staff managers (as of 2009), nearly as many as it did back in 2009, even as the district employs 55 fewer principals than it did four years ago; in fact, Roberts hired 22 more bureaucrats between 2011 and 2012, reversing cuts predecessor Bobb made during his tenure. Roberts also didn’t spend enough time addressing the district’s academic woes. Only near the end of his tenure did Roberts announce that the district would undertake efforts to extend instructional time and provide early childhood classes throughout the district. Given that Roberts is now departing, this plan may not even see the light of day, but even if he did stay, it wasn’t exactly all that bold. None of it addressed the district’s underlying teacher quality issues. It also didn’t take steps to eliminate the district’s central bureaucracy and move school decisions to principals on the ground (as well as hold those school leaders accountable for poor performance). Meanwhile Roberts’ plan failed to offer solutions that would make families lead decision-makers in education such as launching school governance councils with parents holding majority sway over school operations (and being able to hire and fire school leaders) as well as launch a Parent Trigger provision that would allow families to take over and overhaul the failing schools in their own neighborhoods. The lack of a plan to partner with blended learning outfits such as Rocketship Education to provide students with high-quality learning options is also a problem.
At the same time, Roberts hasn’t helped Detroit’s cause on the financial front as much as he could. The new contract Detroit struck with the AFT local earlier this year ended up being more give-away than cost-savings measure. The new contract keep reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoff rules in place even as Michigan state government ended the practice two years ago as part of a revamp of its teacher tenure law; Roberts essentially agreed to restrict the district’s ability to reduce headcounts based on performance and at the same time, made the district even less attractive to high-quality early career teachers who would be the first to lose their jobs in a workforce reduction. Even worse, tenure has been granted to school counselors and other staff that doesn’t teach in classrooms and aren’t granted near-lifetime employment under state law. The contract also restores payouts to retiring teachers who trade in unused sick days; Roberts had canceled the payouts last year when he imposed the contract on the AFT local. While the payouts will be reduced from as much as $12,500 for each retiring instructor to $8,000 over the life of the three-year deal, it still means that the district is continuing a practice that has cost it $19 million in payments and wages for substitute teachers during its 2011 fiscal year alone.
Meanwhile Roberts missed opportunities for bold action, especially in abandoning the traditional district model. He, along with Snyder, undercut the boldness of EAA by reducing the number of Motor City schools it would take over from 45 to 15. Roberts also failed to embrace another opportunity for strong reform, in the form of plan developed by predecessor Bobb to convert 41 failing traditional schools into charter schools. Such a move would have allowed for families, community groups, teachers and charter school operators to take on efforts to provide children in Motown with high-quality education. While Roberts failed to act, others have stepped into the breach. Cornerstone Charter School, for example, launched two new schools leveraging the blended learning model, while a community group, Excellent Schools Detroit, is embarking on its own efforts to launch schools fit for kids. As a result, thousands of kids attending Detroit’s failure mills are still subjected to educational abuse and neglect.
The reality is that Roberts needed to admit that the Detroit district isn’t salvageable as is. As with so many traditional districts, its very scale made it perfectly workable in a time when children didn’t need college preparatory education in order to survive and succeed economically and socially. This isn’t so anymore. Providing children with high-quality education is critical to their success — and that of the communities in which they live. But save for a few districts such as New York City, the central bureaucracy model emulated for so long by Detroit (along with teacher contracts focused on seniority instead of performance, personnel policies that reward school leaders for failing upward instead of success, and the penchant for expansion instead of serving kids effectively no matter where they live) has never been and never will be able to adapt to the needs of our children today. But Roberts, whose career was spent mostly at General Motors (whose decline is another example of the consequences of focusing on scale over quality) would never take the steps needed to put Detroit’s bureaucracy out of its misery.
But the lack of boldness on Roberts’ part isn’t just his fault alone. While Gov. Snyder has done admirably in advancing reform throughout the Wolverine State, he didn’t demand Roberts to take even bolder steps as he should have, or if Roberts wasn’t willing to do so, remove him and bring in someone who would. Some of this is understandable; after all, he has the rest of the Wolverine State (including Detroit’s main city government, which is now in state receivership) to which to attend. But when a leader decides to take on the overhaul of a failing district, they have to put people in place who will do the Churchillian work of ending the rebuilding operations (or, in the case of Detroit, winding them down in a way that benefits children), demand that they achieve results, and be out front in providing those leaders the cover needed to take those steps. This is especially important in the case of Detroit, where city government leadership and school board members have long ago proven that they are unwilling to do anything other than spar among themselves and fill their pockets with taxpayer dollars.
Now that Roberts is leaving, Gov. Snyder should move quickly to hire an emergency financial manager who will actually be bold. That person must finally admit that Detroit should no longer be in the business of running schools and perhaps, not even be in the business of managing buildings. This starts with dusting off Bobb’s plan to convert some schools into charters, and actually hand off every school to high-quality operators as well as to communities and families. The district can lease the buildings to those operators, hire a building management firm to handle leasing and maintenance, and hand off information technology services to another firm. The district would only need minimal staff to oversee contracts as well as handle pension payments and other obligations the district owes. At the same time, Michigan should work to authorize new charters — and even launch a school voucher program — in order to expand choice opportunities for families in the Motor City.
Certainly Roberts did fine given the circumstances with which he was working. But he could have been bolder. Now it is time for Snyder to bring in a successor who will do for Detroit’s children what Roberts couldn’t do.