Detroit Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti speaks at Mackinac Policy Conference in Michigan on Thursday. (Washington Post image from video)

Detroit public schools have long been troubled, with massive debt, crumbling buildings, insufficient funding, declining enrollment and an aggressive “choice” movement — pushed for many years in Michigan by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary. But at a high-profile conference, the new superintendent of the system made clear there has been something else going on in Detroit that harms students: racism.

Sitting on a panel at the Mackinac Policy Conference with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others, Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said Thursday that Detroit children have been used as political “pawns” and that the dysfunction that has marked the system’s operations for a decade “would never, ever happen in any white suburban district in this country.” (Others on the panel included University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Detroit School District Treasurer Sonya Mays.)

“There is a racist element to what happened,” Vitti said, referring in part to years of poor management by state-appointed managers and a lack of proper support for students living in poverty.

While Vitti has often talked about equity issues since he became superintendent last year, Chalkbeat noted that this was starker language than usual and that the venue was important: the annual Mackinac Policy Conference. It’s always well attended by Michigan’s elite in politics, business, education, technology and other areas, many of whom have supported policies that Vitti attacked. The conference is sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber, one of the country’s largest chambers of commerce.

Vitti also said that school choice, which DeVos advocated for decades in her home state, was not the answer to troubles that plague traditional public school systems.

DeVos was a leader in the movement in Michigan to bring in charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies — and she said they would help create a more equitable school system. It didn’t happen. She and like-minded reformers were unsuccessful in bringing a voucher system — public funds paying for private and religious school tuition — to Michigan.

As for standardized test scores, the key metric that school reformers have used to determine school quality, results vary according to which study you look at, but Michigan’s charters and traditional public schools do not do well. There’s also evidence that Michigan charters, which are allowed to operate with little or no oversight, have exacerbated segregation. And like charter schools elsewhere, Detroit’s have drained resources from the traditional system.

“We’ve seen choice without guardrails,” Vitti said. “That hasn’t worked.”

Here’s what Vitti said:

People often ask me, “What were you most surprised about when you took the job and started to work in the system?” And I often say I was shocked, horrified at the lack of systems and processes for traditional public education. Traditional public education has always been, and hopefully will always be, the vehicle for social change, for social justice, for equal opportunity in this country. And walking into the system and seeing a lack of systems and processes is a testament of the lack of belief in what children can do.

And there is a racist element to what has happened. Children in Detroit have been treated like second-class citizens. When a system is allowed to be run over a decade by individuals, and it’s not about one individual, but individuals that had no track record of education reform, no local governance structure to address immediate concerns and issues by the community through an elected board . . . and year after year of low performance, a lack of growth, drop in enrollment, facilities that are not kept up, that would never ever happen in any white suburban district in this country.

[Applause from audience]

And that is a testament of race. Because this country would not allow that. We see signs of that in Flint and we saw signs of that in New Orleans after the flood and we have multiple examples of this. And there is oftentimes very strong rhetoric about equal opportunity in public education.

It’s time to actually support it financially. But even with the right policy, even when we talk about “we need accountability,” we [do] need that accountability. But I often say to people when you inject the accountability, what are you doing for support? Because for best practices for every unit of accountability, there has to be a corresponding unit of support. And for schools that are deeply struggling basically because of poverty, there needs to be extra degrees of support. And that’s what we haven’t figured out.

So often there is a conversation in the state of Michigan and even throughout the country that “well, we need more accountability.” Well, we need accountability, but you also need more support. Where does accountability move to? More choice. We’ve seen choice in Michigan. We’ve seen choice without guardrails. That hasn’t worked. So that is not the solution after you hold people accountable.

So let’s get back to the root cause, which is often linked to race, linked to poverty and let’s invest in the whole child . . . regardless of Zip code and regardless of race and we can actually see what children can accomplish. We have yet to see what children in Detroit can accomplish at scale because we’ve really never funded it appropriately, provided the right kind of support and ensured the right kind of governance structure and leaders were in place to ensure that the system moved forward for the benefit of children. We have used Detroit and Detroit children as political, often pawns, and gamesmanship has happened politically in the state.

[Applause.]

That’s what I’ve seen walking in.