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Tensions Build In Detroit After Schools Takeover


And now we'll turn from New Jersey to Detroit, where tensions are really building around the public school system there. The U.S. Department of Education is looking into whether recent school closures have disproportionately hurt black and Latino students. Also, an emergency financial manager is shaking things up at Detroit Public Schools after getting some new authority from the state.

Here to explain is Jerome Vaughn, news director at member station WDET in Detroit. Welcome back, Jerome.

JEROME VAUGHN, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So you've talked on this show about the emergency management situation for the city of Detroit, but the public schools have their own emergency financial manager who was in place before, but now has some much broader, stronger powers. Explain what this means for the schools.

VAUGHN: Well, to give you just a brief amount of background, the state of Michigan decided back, actually, in 1999 that Detroit schools were in such bad shape that the state needed to come in and take them over. The state's essentially had a board running Detroit Public Schools from 1999 until about 2005. Local control went back to Detroit in 2005 and there were just about four years that the city had control again and the state decided it needed to bring someone back in, an emergency financial manager, to take over the city schools because the finances were terrible and the academic success was terrible, too.

So what's happened more recently - and this was the same thing that happened with the city - there was an emergency financial manager in place. This was governed by a law that was passed in the late 1990s. It allowed for control of finances, but many other things were left undone.

A new law passed in December of 2012, became an emergency manager. This gave the same person heightened powers to control contracts, to unilaterally make decisions on...

HEADLEE: To walk away from contracts if he want - and he recently came in and fired the superintendent.

VAUGHN: Exactly. This person has control over academics, as well as over finances of the district and this person - his job or her job - in this case, his - is really to get the school district back up on its feet.

HEADLEE: There are other school districts that have, at some point, been taken over by the state. Has there been evidence that the state is better at running these school districts? Has there been improvement in graduation rates and test scores?

VAUGHN: Generally not. The problem with this system, according to critics, is the state comes in, takes over. The finances don't get any better. The school performance doesn't get any better. You can look at what happened in Detroit back in 1999 to 2005. Things did not improve. You can look at the Highland Park School District. Things have not improved. So there's not been a track record of success with this yet.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about how Detroit schools are faring under emergency management and we're speaking with Jerome Vaughn, the news director at WDET in Detroit.

But complicating all this is this complaint that the U.S. Department of Education is investigating the DPS, Detroit Public Schools, in terms of discrimination. The argument, as I understand it - and please correct me - is that they're taking over schools that are majority African-American and Latino when there are schools that are majority white that have the same issues. Explain what's going on here.

VAUGHN: Well, I think that's essentially it - is that, with all of the things going on in the Detroit system, the schools are primarily African-American. Schools in certain areas of the city are primarily Latino, but that other school districts outside of Detroit are having similar problems when it comes to finances and academics and those schools are not being taken over by the state.

The same argument is being made with cities, whereas many of the cities being taken over by the state are African-American cities, Detroit and Benton Harbor and Flint, whereas other cities with primarily white populations are not seeing takeovers happen, even though they have similar problems when it comes to finances.

HEADLEE: And, sometimes, the graduation rate. There's another issue in terms of discrimination that's claimed in any way. The Department of Education spokesperson, Jim Bradshaw, told us that the department is also investigating whether or not Detroit Public Schools has treated African-American students differently by disciplining them, sometimes punishing them for taking part in student protests but, at the same time, not disciplining students of other races who take part in protests. What's your experience with this? Do you see this?

VAUGHN: Well, if you look at the number of suspensions taking place in the city of Detroit schools, it's quite striking. A couple of years ago, as many as one in every three students in the district was suspended for one reason or another and you don't see those same numbers...

HEADLEE: Wait, wait, wait. Say that again. One in three students in the Detroit Public Schools was suspended at some point?

VAUGHN: Right. 70,000 students a couple years ago and more than 25,000 students suspended...

HEADLEE: Holy cow.

VAUGHN: ...during that period of time and so that is an example of what the critics are saying is disproportionate attention by the district. Those numbers you don't see in suburban districts.

There was a large protest not too long ago when this really came to a head. Last year, in April, one of the schools in the southwest part of Detroit, which is heavily Hispanic, was - it was announced that was going to close. There was a large protest. A hundred and eighty students got suspended for taking part in the protest when they were merely saying, you know, our school is closing. We don't want our school to close. And so that's really the point at which community activists and even one state representative got involved in filing a complaint.

HEADLEE: So explain exactly what's going on. How high are the tensions now between parents and teachers and school administrations and the kids?

VAUGHN: Very high all the way around. I think parents are extremely frustrated about the state of the district. They see kids' test scores falling. They see fewer and fewer resources in the school. Teachers are upset because they're getting fewer and fewer resources. They are not getting raises. Their union is giving concessions. Principals are upset because they're asked to do more with less and the state is involved and the state is working to improve these schools and they're not seeing the improvement that they would like, so there's no area - there's no party that's happy with where things are right now in Detroit schools.

HEADLEE: And is there any kind of deadline coming up? Is there any decision point?

VAUGHN: Well, with this new emergency manager law that's gone into place, the elected school board can vote out the emergency manager in 18 months. Now, this is a saga that's been going on since 1999 on and off. You know, really, it seems very unlikely that the school is going to get everything together - the school system's going to get everything together in the next 18 months.


VAUGHN: Roy Roberts, the emergency manager - his job really is to get things pointed in the right direction...


VAUGHN: ...in that period of time.

HEADLEE: Jerome Vaughn, news director at member station WDET in Detroit. That's where he joined us from. Thank you so much.

VAUGHN: Any time, Celeste.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.