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Beline Obeid

Are Grosse Pointe schools to blame for economic divide?

Mary Anne Brush Staff Writer

Photo by Mary Anne Brush A recent report listed Grosse Pointe and Detroit as America's most segregating school district border.
September 01, 2016
A report released by EdBuild Tuesday, Aug. 23, revealed data about economic segregation in American schools, suggesting arbitrary district lines increase the chasm between the "haves" and the "have nots" by confining poor students to under-resourced schools. At the top of this list are Detroit Public Schools and the Grosse Pointe Public School System.

EdBuild is a New Jersey nonprofit "created to rethink schools and rebuild communities," according to its LinkedIn profile. The report, "Fault Lines: America's Most Segregating School District Borders," tells a familiar tale of segregation, poverty, inequity and the failure of states and school districts across the country — with the 50 most segregated school district borders concentrated in 14 states, most in the Rust Belt region — to close the achievement gap in spite of repeated efforts and good intentions.

GPPSS Superintendent Gary Niehaus deftly fielded questions from reporters, from the Detroit News to Huffington Post, pointing out the district's efforts to promote diversity and an inclusive environment (see related article on page 3D). Moreover, his office responded to the report in an email, stating, "the study has undercounted the level of poverty impacting our schools significantly. Based on our data, 15.47 percent of our students are in poverty. The studies' methodology only estimated our poverty rate at 7 percent."

Wherever the fault for those "fault lines" lies, Niehaus can address only the district he serves and efforts underway to relieve racial tensions or educational disparities in the Grosse Pointe community. The economic downturn in 2008 led to an opening of borders of sorts, with lower property values and more rental opportunities, absent former discriminatory practices, allowing families — black and white — from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to move in and take advantage of the school system. Meanwhile, promising GPPSS graduates are launching careers in Detroit and opting to live in an increasingly vibrant urban community.

Yet little progress has been made since the U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, declaring state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The EdBuild report, addressing separate and unequal school systems 62 years later, blames the structure of education funding. According to the report, the "over reliance on locally raised property taxes to fund public schools gives wealthier communities the permission to keep their resources away from the neediest schools. This creates a system of school district borders that trap low-income children in high concentrations of poverty, while more privileged peers live in better-resourced communities, often right next door."

However, while the report cites the disparities between Grosse Pointe and its next-door neighbor as its most glaring example, it does not address the lack of leadership in Detroit schools or the waste, corruption, mismanagement and even criminal activity plaguing the school system for years. Nor does it mention Detroit receives nearly the same per-pupil amount from the state as Grosse Pointe and charter schools do.

Niehaus offers another perspective.

"What's clear is that we need to find a new way to strengthen funding for traditional public education in every community. The attack on public education in Detroit has cost us dearly as charter schools expanded and weakened public schools and districts across the state. Complicating the unbridled expansion of charter schools is our ongoing struggle with Proposal A as a financing mechanism," Niehaus wrote. "Since Proposal A was passed in 1993, taxes collected for the schools go to Lansing and are redistributed to the districts on a per-pupil basis. When that Michigan legislation was passed, the intent was to raise all districts to an agreed upon standard without penalizing the communities that chose to tax itself more to support education. Since then, districts that were spending more than the agreed upon level of funding per pupil have only been able to levy gap millages to keep funding at that 1993 level. That is a severe handicap in a globally competitive education industry and Michigan is falling behind as a result."

EdBuild points to the 1970 Milliken v. Bradley case as a watershed moment in the increasing divide. According to the report, "a group of African-American parents, in partnership with the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, filed suit against the state of Michigan, alleging that government action had led to racial segregation in the Detroit school system." In response, the district court "ordered state officials to craft a desegregation plan that included not only the city of Detroit, but also the districts in the surrounding suburbs."

In 1974, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling in a 5-4 decision, "finding that Detroit was indeed segregated, but neighboring districts could not be compelled to take part in a solution. Chief Justice Burger wrote that school districts were autonomous entities and their boundaries should be considered sacrosanct."

This decision, according to the report, paved the way for the economic injustice and disparities in educational opportunities between Detroit and Grosse Pointe today. While Brown v. Board was viewed as a story of hope and courage on the road to justice, creating a constitutional right for every child in this country to equal opportunity for a quality education, the Milliken ruling two decades later diminished that right, relegating responsibility for the education of Detroit's children to the inadequacies of a failing city and crumbling school district. Meanwhile, Grosse Pointe inhabitants hold tight to their property values, district-drawn boundaries and residents-only right to attend local public schools.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in his dissent to the Milliken case, weighed in: "The rights at issue in this case are too fundamental to be abridged on grounds as superficial as those relied on by the majority today. We deal here with the right of all of our children .... to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Those children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them that right in the future. Our nation, I fear, will be ill-served by the court's refusal to remedy separate but unequal education, for unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."

Funding at a Glance

State Foundation allowance for DPS: $7,434 for fiscal year 2016

State Foundation allowance for GPPSS: $9,864 for fiscal year 2016


DPS: $1,650 — GPPSS: $997

State Aid

DPS: $5,784 — GPPSS: $6,974


DPS: $7,434 — GPPSS: $7,971

Hold Harmless*

DPS: 0 — GPPSS: $1,893

Total (Foundation)

DPS: $7,434 — GPPSS: $9,864

*The Hold Harmless maximum varies by district.

Proposal A was intended to "raise all ships" to an agreed-upon minimum by changing the funding structure for school districts, without penalizing districts that spent more per pupil already than in 1993. Before Proposal A, all school districts were essentially self-funded and the tax dollars collected for education stayed within the local schools. But some districts were running out of funds and some seniors were being taxed out of their homes. Since Proposal A passed, school taxes go to the state and are distributed to districts using the per-pupil formula.

The state legislators and governor have approved a higher per-pupil increase for districts like Detroit and lower per-pupil increase for districts like Grosse Pointe.

—from the Superintendent's Office

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