Strike May Cost Detroit Schools in Student Aid

Michigan schools are hoping plenty of students showed up for class Wednesday, the day schools report the number of students they have in attendance for the purpose of receiving state aid. The Detroit school district estimated last week that some 25,000 students were missing after a 16-day teachers' strike. Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Across Michigan today, students are being counted. It is count day, the day public schools tally the number of children to determine how much state aide they will receive. This is especially important in Detroit, where the hemorrhaging of public school students threatens tens of millions of dollars in state money.

From Michigan Radio, Sarah Hulett reports.

(Soundbite of children playing and singing)

SARAH HULETT: At the Katherine Blackwell Institute on Detroit's east side, students line up to pick up free backpacks before the start of school. The backpacks are just one of the perks of coming to school on count day. Assistant Principal Patricia Hines lists a few more.

Ms. PATRICIA HINES (Katherine Blackwell Institute): We're wrapping up target gift cards. The board has given every school a laptop computer to wrap up. And also the children are going to get some other little prizes just for coming in today.

HULETT: Detroit isn't the only district using the lure of goodies to boost its student count today. Classrooms across the state are offering incentives from pizza parties to ice cream to students who show up to school.

But the stakes are especially high in Detroit. A 16 day teacher strike delayed the start of school. And district officials reported last week they were 25,000 students short of expected enrollment. If those numbers don't improve, the district is looking at a loss of $190 million, a crippling blow for the school system.

But parents like Debra Pew(ph) are trying to help the city schools. Pew, who has two children enrolled in the Blackwell Institute, says parents who have left the district should consider returning.

Ms. DEBRA PEW: I believe that a lot of parents do need to bring their students to DPS even though we're struggling. Things will get better.

HULETT: At risk are teaching positions and the possible closure of dozens of schools. David Plank with the Education Policy Center at Michigan State says Michigan's per student funding system has created a death spiral for districts with declining enrollments. He says when schools lose state funding, they have to slash spending.

Dr. DAVID PLANK (Michigan State University): When the district cuts its budget it reduces the quality of educational program it's able to provide for its students, which means that more students leave and the spiral continues.

HULETT: Detroit began losing students to charter schools and neighboring districts long before this year. But this summer's strike and subsequent drop in attendance has lead to talk of a possible collapse. Ryan Olson is the director of education policy for the Mackinac Center, a free market think tank based in Michigan.

He says Detroit's efforts to lure students to school with junk food and entertainment sends the wrong message.

Mr. RYAN OLSON (Mackinac Center): Districts and especially in this case Detroit public schools should be attempting to lure parents to send their students to district schools based on educational quality, rather than buying pizza, iPods and rap performances.

(Soundbite of children)

HULETT: But school officials say with funding based on attendance, they don't have much of a choice, and they are relying on parents like Deidre Davis to help. Davis's two sons reenrolled at the Blackwell Institute this morning.

Ms. DEIDRE DAVIS: We moved to Georgia over the summer, and my two children, they wanted to come back to Blackwell, so she told us that there was space open and today was count day, so get in the car yesterday and drove back.

HULETT: Final enrollment numbers are not expected to be available for at least two weeks. But the question for Detroit is not whether the district lost students, but how many and whether it can survive the loss.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.

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