DETROIT (AP) — Anthony Sawyers is a sophomore at Detroit's pre-eminent public high school, Cass Tech, where textbooks aren't allowed out of his classrooms — even to take home to study.
That, his mother Tomi Sawyers says, is a sign of how dire financial troubles are in the district, which other parents and educators say has had chronic shortages of books, paper and other supplies. Detroit Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski says it is moving toward using more technology, and that students also have access to Microsoft Office 365 for mobile and desktop computers at home.
But not everyone has home computers, and the question for Sawyers remains: "If the schools don't have enough money now to buy textbooks, how will books get bought if the district runs out of money?"
Lost in the cacophony of Detroit teachers' frequent protests over pay — including the possibility there might not be enough for payroll this summer — poor building conditions and being under state oversight is how the lack of money affects 46,000 students' ability to learn. In the last week alone, teachers called off sick for two days, meaning kids in 94 schools missed precious instruction time.
Detroit is among the poorest districts in the country, and it shows in test results; the district ranks among the worst in the nation in standardized test scores. About 90 percent of Detroit's fourth- and seventh-graders are "not proficient" in science compared with fewer than 60 percent of their peers around Michigan in one recent state test.
Plus, students' performance is 2.3 years below the U.S. average, according to data compiled by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University.
The lack of money also is apparent in the condition of its 97 buildings, some of which needed immediate repairs this year after the city found scores of code violations. Operating funds are being used to pay down long-term debt and the district has needed a short-term bailout just to pay teachers' salaries.
The district has been under continuous state control since 2009, and legislators appear torn over how to best help. A $717 million plan OK'd by the Senate would keep the old district to retire the schools' debt and create a new district to educate students, while House Republicans have come up with a $500 million proposal.
In the meantime, the district, which lost more than 100,000 students over the past decade or so due to a declining city population and competition from charter schools and suburban districts, is likely to see more student defections.
More than 65,000 school-age children live in Detroit but are not enrolled in the district, according to state figures. Southfield Public Schools said it received a handful of inquiries from Detroit parents after the sick-outs.
"Most of my friends are saying 'You are going to see me in Grosse Pointe, you're going to see me in Southfield," said Keianna McCormick, 16, an 11th-grader at Cass Tech.
What's going on in Detroit is "extraordinary," said David Arsen, an education professor at Michigan State University.
"I can't think of another situation quite like this, or a district that's this large where the stakes are so high in terms of the finances and in terms of the distance that must be traveled before Detroit children get the type of education services they deserve," Arsen said.
As lawmakers, administrators, teachers and others argue over what to do, Detroit's students and parents "are getting the short end of the stick," according to Sharlonda Buckman, chief executive of the nonprofit Detroit Parent Network.
"We have parents with high school seniors missing days while they are preparing to take SATs. Parents at the last minute having to leave their children at home unsupervised," Buckman said.
"Parents have supported teachers time and time again, but our fight is for our kids."
While not perfect, the Michigan Senate bills were a positive step and a compromise, Arsen said. The Senate plan would create a commission to make decisions about opening and closing schools, including an uncapped number of publicly funded charters that enroll about 36,000 students. The House plan would wipe out the debt and make sure teachers are paid, but does not include the commission.
All the dysfunction leaves Detroit students with fewer classroom resources to compete in college, said Monique Baker McCormick, Keianna's mother and a DPS alum. A parent in 2001 said her daughter's global issues class had only seven textbooks which had to be shared among 35 students. Others have said books were outdated and falling apart.
"I graduated 30 years ago and they have been saying how terrible the school system is or was," Baker McCormick said. "But I came out OK and thousands of other students that came out before me and after me came out OK. But now, we have a total dismantling of the system and now we really can't say that anyone is going to come out OK."
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