Detroit school 'sickouts': Explain it to me

Members of the Detroit teachers union march Monday outside school district offices.

Story highlights

  • The crisis playing out in Detroit has been brewing for a long time
  • Michigan lawmakers are discussing a fix, but it's unclear when, or if, they'll act

(CNN)Teachers protesting instead of teaching. Parents scrambling to arrange care for their kids. Lawmakers arguing over how to fix a mess quickly that's been decades in the making.

The mess in Detroit Public Schools has grabbed national headlines, even as most of the country is looking forward to summer vacation.
    Here's a look at how we got here, and maybe where we're going:

    What's the deal with Detroit schools?

    What's not the deal might be a better question.
    The district, which is under state control, is deeply in debt. It's about to run out of money to pay teachers, educators say many school buildings are a mess and student achievement is generally quite poor.

    How did this happen?

    Detroit's problems are both legion and legendary, the stuff of books, academic treatises and detailed chart-heavy reports.
    But this is it, in short: People left and took their money with them, and nobody's been able, or willing, to fix it since.
    Since peaking at 1.8 million residents in the 1950s, Detroit's population has fallen to an estimated 680,000 as of 2014. The population losses began as the city's fabled auto industry started moving to the suburbs and tens of thousands of residents followed.
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    Enrollment in city schools has similarly fallen by 100,000 in the last decade alone, according to the state of Michigan.
    Fewer students means less state funding, and that has contributed to a huge operating deficit, not to mention the district's enormous debt burden -- $515 million, or nearly $11,000 for each of the district's 47,000 students.

    How is the debt affecting education?

    A lot of the money the district does get from the state for education has instead been going to pay off those bills, according to state officials, contributing to academic deficits in many classrooms across the city.
    And on top of that, the latest emergency manger appointed by the state to run the district -- there have been four since 2009 -- told lawmakers in March that it would run out of money to pay teachers this month if the state didn't send emergency funds to Detroit, and quickly.
    And that's how we got to teachers calling in sick to protest the prospect of not getting paid after June 30.
    However, teachers got a guarantee on Tuesday, May 3 that they would be paid for the full school year.

    Why are teachers complaining they won't get paid in the summer?

    Well, teachers in Detroit can opt to spread their paychecks out over the entire calendar, instead of just receiving them during the academic year.
    That means an estimated two-thirds of teachers would go without paychecks over the summer, the American Federation of Teachers figures.
    School officials haven't corroborated those numbers.

    What do Detroit teachers get paid anyway?

    On average, $63,716, according to the state.

    How does that stack up with teachers elsewhere?

    Detroit comes in 101st among Michigan's 904 school districts, according to state data.
    The highest-paid teachers in the state? Those in the DeTour Area Schools, where the average salary is $89,373, according to the state.
    Nationally, the average salary for elementary, primary, secondary and special education teachers is $56,370, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    So what other complaints do teachers have?

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    Overcrowded classrooms, crumbling and unsafe buildings, equipment shortages -- you name it.
    In some schools, teachers complain of classrooms with upward of 45 students, scurrying roaches and rodents, dripping leaks, mold damage and more.
    In January, a lawsuit filed by teachers against the district alleged "unrepaired bullet holes," exposed wiring and heating systems that leave some classrooms freezing and others sweltering.
    The union even said a school dedicated to technology lacked Internet access.

    Anything else bad going?

    Well, student achievement is in the toilet.
    National surveys show Detroit's math and reading scores have fallen to the lowest ranking among the nation's largest cities.
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    Oh, and there's a bribery scandal.
    In March, federal prosecutors charged 13 current or former Detroit school officials with bribery in an alleged kickback scheme. Authorities accused a vendor of paying off the school officials to allow their schools to be charged for supplies he never delivered.
    Two officials were expected to appear in court Tuesday in the case.

    OK, but can teachers really just walk out like this?

    Public employee strikes are illegal in Michigan, according to the state's Public Employment Relations Act. To the extent that a "sickout" is a strike -- defined by state law as the "concerted failure" to show up for work "for the purpose of inducing, influencing, or coercing a change in employment conditions, compensation, or the rights, privileges, or obligations of employment" -- it might not be legal either.
    But figuring out whether it's a strike or a sudden epidemic of the achoos could be time-consuming and costly. Back in 2006, when Detroit teachers openly went on strike, the district didn't even file a complaint because of those issues, the Detroit Free Press reported.
    Detroit schools did go to court in January, during the last wave of sickouts, to force teachers back into the classroom, but a judge dismissed union officials from the complaint.

    So, is anybody doing anything about all these problems?

    Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a $715 million plan to create an entirely new school district, give it state funding for student education and then use a portion of Detroit tax revenues to pay off the debt owed by the old district, which would no longer be in the education business.
    It would take 15 to 20 years to get the debt paid off, according to Peter Wills, chief of staff for state Sen. Goeff Hansen, who introduced some of the legislation.
    Lawmakers were working on some of those bills Tuesday, including a proposal to eliminate the prohibition on emergency lending to Detroit schools and authorize a $33 million emergency loan.