McNeilly: First day of school in Detroit 2026

This column originally appeared in The Detroit News on April 21, 2016.

Ten years after the Michigan Legislature voted to establish the highly controversial Detroit Education Commission, an estimated 14,260 students found seats in their classrooms in the Detroit Public Schools, as the morning bell rang in the new school year.

How long the buildings stay open this fall depends on the latest DPS bailout proposals working their way through the state Legislature, as teachers face payless paydays as early as next month.

Casting a further shadow over the start of the 2026 DPS school year was the high rate of turnover among school principals, after a federal probe led this summer to the indictment of more than a dozen heads of school and administrators on bribery and embezzlement charges in connection with a scheme that bilked the district of an estimated $2.4 million.

2026 DPS enrollment is down 69 percent from the 46,000 students who were enrolled when the DEC was first established, continuing a downward spiral in attendance that has been ongoing for more than 20 years. In 2004-05, district enrollment was more than 150,000.

The Education Commission was established in 2016 as part of a $715 million bailout by the state to keep the district financially solvent over the last 10 years, when supporters argued the answer to dwindling enrollment was to give then-mayor Mike Duggan more robust control over the kinds of schools local children could attend.

The commission, composed of seven mayoral appointees, was praised by local teacher union officials and was quickly filled with teachers’ union leaders and their allies.

In a series of highly controversial moves, the commission has rejected every proposed charter school for the last 10 years, a move critics say has contributed to families with school-aged children fleeing Detroit.

“The Detroit Public Schools has been failing kids in our neighborhood for years so when the Mayor blocked that new charter school in 2024, I started looking for a house outside the city limits,” said Jane Jackson, a mother of three who left Detroit to enroll her children in neighboring districts. “We love Detroit, but no city is worth my kids’ future.”

When the commission was first established, 50 charter schools served approximately 50,000 students in Detroit. Only 32 welcomed students back to class today, following a decade-long battle with charter school opponents on the DEC and Democrats who control the state’s School Reform-Redesign Office.

Under the 2016 reform, the DEC was given the power to assign schools in Detroit with a letter grade between A and F. Schools that received an F grade for 3 consecutive years can be closed by officials at the Redesign Office.

The union-stacked Commission has consistently given charter schools lower grades than their traditional public school neighbors —often Fs — despite higher test scores, graduation rates and overall student performance.

In the last 10 years, not one traditional public school in the district has been assigned an F or closed by the DEC and state Redesign Office.

Debate continues in Lansing today over competing state House and Senate bailout proposals aimed at eliminating the district’s $1.2 billion in unfunded liabilities and a $315 million operating deficit.

“Detroit public schools will close in October unless Lansing writes another big check, and soon,” said Detroit Education Commission Chairman Brian Banks, who as a state lawmaker helped author the legislation establishing the DEC. “The commission has diligently eliminated competition in order to put our city’s schools on a solid financial footing. It’s a solid plan that’s going to work eventually, but not if out-state taxpayers don’t continue to fund our efforts and keep the lights on tomorrow.”

Detroit parent groups and school choice proponents are pointing to the complete failure of the 2016 legislation, arguing against the latest bailout request and asking policymakers to empower parents by expanding educational options inside the city.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

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