Putting the ‘Fun’ in Dysfunctional

There just isn’t enough column space to describe the myriad dysfunctions of Detroit Public Schools, much less consider the system’s options for improvement.

To wit: Acting Superintendent Teresa Gueyser recently filed a complaint against a former president of the board of education, Otis Mathis, saying he repeatedly fondled himself during private meetings with her.

The Rev. David Murray, a board member, said in response, “It happens to a lot of young men. They engage in behavior they feel is harmless and it’s offensive to certain people.” Mr. Mathis is 55, so you wonder how old one has to be before Mr. Murray expects him to outgrow his propensity for public lewdness.

Meanwhile, the board of education is at odds with Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb over the drastic measures he says are necessary to salvage what little seems to remain of a working public school infrastructure.

Just what drastic measures has he implemented? In February, he ended the longtime practice of “social promotion” in Detroit Public Schools, that pesky habit of advancing to a higher grade students who have not mastered the material in a lower grade.

Some people say this practice is the only reason that roughly 25 percent of Detroit’s children graduate from high school at all. If they had to actually earn a diploma, many folks say, that rate would be much lower. (Insert groan here.)

Mr. Bobb also wants to close crumbling school buildings and cut spending so that the system’s budget can operate in the black. Talk about drastic. Whoever heard of such a thing, especially in Detroit?

Rather than spend his time figuring out how to educate Detroit’s youths within the confines of a sound fiscal plan, Mr. Bobb is stuck in court battling the board over his decisions. (This is the very same board that needs an emergency financial manager because the system it supposedly oversees is broke and broken.)

When it comes to educating Detroit’s children, Mr. Bobb might be the only responsible adult in the game.

This week, in an effort to get Detroit parents to be more responsible for their children, Wayne County prosecutor Kim Worthy has proposed jail time for those who miss scheduled parent-teacher conferences.

Under a three-strikes-and-you’re-out plan, parents would have three chances to schedule and attend one teacher conference. If they don’t go, they’ll sit in jail for three days, presumably to think about more responsible parenting. (Or maybe they’ll be thinking about who is taking care of the kids while they’re in jail.)

You can understand the anger and frustration behind the prosecutor’s plan. In her defense, when all you have is a hammer (she’s a prosecutor, after all), everything looks like a jail.

Critics say this approach won’t work because you can’t legislate good parenting. I agree.

You can, however, incentivize it, and this is where school vouchers would work like a charm. Suppose every parent received a per-student educational voucher, but one that comes with strings.

You could not simply enroll your kid in school and walk away, as the majority of Detroit parents do now. Under a voucher system, parents would have to meet specified parental obligations to continue receiving their child’s school funding, one of which would be regular attendance at parent-teacher conferences (not just one, as Ms. Worthy suggests).

Too many parents — in Detroit and across the nation — use the public schools as free baby sitters. They don’t give a hoot if their kids learn anything, just as long as the bus picks them up in the morning and the school provides breakfast and lunch. More’s the better if there’s an aftercare program, and best of all if it serves dinner before sending the kids home at night.

But suppose public education wasn’t a right, as our current administration defines it, but a privilege? One that came with responsibilities on the part of students and their parents?

Suppose irresponsible parents were held accountable not with the threat of jail time, but with the threat of paying out of pocket for their child’s compulsory education?

It would work, because at the end of the day, Detroit parents would do whatever it takes to assure that their child’s schooling was paid for, even if it meant showing up once in a while for a teacher conference.

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