When I was in third grade, I lived in China for a year. My mom was teaching English at a university, and I attended a Chinese public school.

This was in the 1990s, when China had not liberalized nearly as much as it has today. We saw older people still wearing Chairman Mao suits. Only the rich (read: Communist Party members) had personal cars; everyone else biked, walked or took taxis that looked like this.

The school itself was a large concrete structure, bare bones in the extreme. There were about 35 kids in my class, if memory serves, with just one teacher. Everyone was very kind and accommodating, but suffice it to say it was a huge (and good, but still huge) culture shock to me.

That school — literally in 1990s communist China — sounds like an absolute dream compared to the public schools in Detroit (emphasis added):

[The students can’t take] books home from school, making homework nearly impossible. Many students at the schools must also share books, often damaged beyond readability. Some books are even older than the students reading them, according to the suit.

Many schools also lack basic supplies, like paper, pencils and even toilet paper, [a lawsuit filed by students from one district] alleges. Wealthier schools in the area either donate these items, or teachers purchase them out of pocket, according to the suit.

The suit also alleges a deficiency in clean and safe classroom space to accompany the dwindling supplies. As many as 50 students sit in some classrooms, elbow-to-elbow or on the floor, according to the suit. As a result, classrooms, with either no or minimal air conditioning, can reach as hot as 90 degrees. At Hamilton Academy, a charter school attended by one of the plaintiffs, excessive temperatures caused students and teachers to vomit and faint during the first week of this school year, according to the suit.

In one fourth-grade classroom in a school not attended by any of the plaintiffs but still within the district, a leaking hole in the ceiling created “the lake,” as students and teachers refer to the area in their classroom surrounded by yellow caution tape.

This is seriously heartbreaking. And perhaps even more shocking than the physical failures of the schools is the state of the instruction the students receive. At one school, an eighth grader (!) taught a math class (!!) for a month (!!!) because the school couldn’t find a new math teacher to take over after the old one left.

An eighth grader is 14 years old. This school is in such bad shape that a 14-year-old had to teach for a month.

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If I’m getting repetitive, it’s because I can’t even fathom what it’s like trying to learn under such conditions, let alone what these students’ parents must be thinking when they realize how betrayed their children have been by their public schools.

It should go almost without saying that this level of incompetence would not be tolerated in anything other than a government agency. It is because these schools are run by the government that they are in such terrible shape.

Of course, there is massive variety among public schools nationwide, and there are plenty of more specific reasons why Detroit’s schools are in such bad shape — the plunge in local property values and corresponding tax receipts is an obvious culprit. I don’t wish to oversimplify here.

But the single most necessary reason they can become and stay so terrible is the guarantee of “customers” (students) the government’s near-monopoly on education produces. Any private company providing this level of service would be run out business in a heartbeat, and more helpful, competent competition would take over.

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Detroit’s children — and no doubt children in many other, less-publicized places around the country — are suffering through a sub-par education that will negatively impact the entire life trajectories of all but a lucky few.

It is unconscionable, and equally unconscionable are reactionary efforts to stop the radical reforms this education system so desperately needs.

The state of Detroit’s public schools will break your heart AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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