The hype, the reality

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert C. Bobb has garnered much national publicity as he struggles to save what is arguably the most troubled big-city school system in America from both financial bankruptcy and academic ruin. As his first year of this struggle ends--he was just granted a second term, through February 2011--Bobb has made some promising strides. As John Merrow reported in October, he has been doggedly rooting out waste, inefficiency, and even fraud while chipping away at the $306 million deficit he inherited. Bobb says they’ve saved tens of millions by making changes in health care and transportation, for example, and the Detroit News recently pegged the deficit at a slightly less-daunting $219 million.

Yet an immense amount remains to be done. Detroit’s NAEP TUDA math scores for 2009 were a downright embarrassment and there’s plenty of other evidence of academic decrepitude. The recent teacher contract negotiations represented an opportunity to redirect matters. They ended just before Christmas with a new three-year agreement (through June, 2012). The Wall Street Journal hailed it as “innovative,” and Randi Weingarten used her space in the New York Times to proclaim that “Detroit Teaches America a Valuable Lesson,” one about “compromise, collaboration and mutual respect, as well as smart investments.” Bobb himself claimed $34-36 million in savings (though he concedes he was seeking $45 million).

In a system with personnel costs of $737 million (for 11,000 total employees, including 5,000 teachers), $35 million is less than 5 percent. And much of the press attention has centered on the fact that each teacher’s pay will be reduced by $10,000, spread over forty paychecks, to be repaid by DPS later (teachers have a choice of several repayment options). In effect, the teachers are giving the district interest-free loans. One might commend Bobb for his creativity in fashioning this scheme and obtaining the union’s assent to it. Yet one threatened alternative was far more draconian ($36,000 in salary cuts over five years, not to be re-paid at all), and in comparison this concession--which one can argue only saves the interest and other costs of raising those funds elsewhere--seems minor indeed. It’s a shame Bobb couldn’t use the threat of bankruptcy to dramatically restructure teacher compensation in Detroit. (Less pay isn’t the only answer, but the fact is teachers in Detroit make $9,000 more than the state average, and two years ago a Manhattan Institute analysis found that no city in the country pays its teachers more.)

Bobb can fairly argue that this contract lays a sort of foundation for more radical personnel changes, with a new teacher review process and new forms of school management being instituted. Yet there, too, he was unable to achieve his foremost goal: tackling tenure. The National Council on Teacher Quality called the changes “largely incremental” (though still “substantial,” given “Detroit's historically unreasonable teachers”). So it’s far from clear that he and his principals will have the tools necessary to have any significant impact on the makeup of Detroit’s teachers. It’s a double shame he couldn’t use the threat of bankruptcy to come closer to this goal, either.

This new contract is hardly the radical restructuring needed by a system so close to crashing and only in public education would it be considered the least bit bold. It may seem that both sides can proclaim some measure of success from these negotiations, but the main “success” was that they compromised at all; Motown’s students are certainly no better off.

More By Author

March 18, 2008
March 19, 2008
April 01, 2008