Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during Thursday’s Republican presidential primary debate in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

 

Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate in Detroit did not only feature vulgar conversation about genitalia. It also featured the first really substantive question about K-12 education in the 11 GOP debates to date.

And that was apt given the setting. Detroit’s public schools are broken. They are $3.5 billion in debt and could run out of cash before the end of the school year, according to the Detroit Free Press. Children go to class in buildings with rats, roaches and crumbling ceilings. In some schools there are mushrooms growing out of the walls.

Fox News anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly put the question to Ohio Gov. John Kasich: “If the federal government bailed out the auto industry here in Detroit, should it also bail out the Detroit schools?”

Kasich never directly answered Kelly’s question. He suggested that Detroit schools are on the right track to improvement in part because they are under mayoral control.

“Well, look, first of all, I think the mayor now is controlling the schools,” Kasich said. “This is not much different than what happened in Cleveland, Ohio, where the African American Democrat mayor, the union and business leaders came to see me and said, ‘Would you help us to pass legislation to really create a CEO environment so that we can take control of the schools?’ ”

“It worked beautifully,” Kasich said. “Cleveland’s coming back. The Cleveland schools are coming back because of a major overhaul.” He went on to discuss the importance of vouchers and charter schools and vocational education, and he said that adults need to “put politics aside” and fight in their communities for stronger schools.

Leaving aside the question of whether mayoral control would really be enough to fix Detroit’s problems, there is this fact: Detroit is not under mayoral control. The city’s schools have been under state-appointed emergency manager for years.

As unsexy as it might sound, governance of the public schools has been a matter of heated debate in Detroit. Teachers — who have staged massive sickouts to protest the deplorable conditions of schools — say that the state has been neglecting the school system and has helped drive it into the ground. The Detroit Federation of Teachers has been pushing for a return to local control of the schools via a locally elected school board.

The state-appointed emergency manager of the school system was, until a few days ago, Darnell Earley. Earley previously served as the state emergency manager of Flint, Mich., from 2013 until January 2015. It was during that period that Flint began using the Flint River as its drinking water source, a move that led to elevated lead levels in the water and a public health crisis.

Earley stepped down on Feb. 29, and the new emergency manager is Steven Rhodes, a retired bankruptcy judge who has said that his first priority is working with the legislature to get Detroit schools the money they need to pay off debts, organize and continue operating.