Detroit schools need new ideas, political will

From the March-April 2016 issue of News & Letters

Detroit, Mich.–Mass teacher “sick-outs” and “walk-ins”—with strong parent support—have rendered a laughingstock of Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS) Emergency Manager Darnell Early, who, before he abruptly resigned in February, claimed “a few radical teachers” were depriving students of education. That lie crumbled to dust as 88 of 97 schools were closed by sickouts in January. Earley’s lie that lost school days denied students their education was in strange contrast to the one-day suspensions he gave students who walked out to support their teachers!

In the aftermath, the Detroit Buildings and Safety Department suddenly discovered its responsibilities for the safety of school buildings. For the first time it has obtained consent agreements with the school administration to make repairs.

Photo by Tanya Moutzalias | MLive Detroit.

Detroit teachers sickout protest. Photo by Tanya Moutzalias | MLive Detroit

Meanwhile the state scrambles to “fix” DPS, which could go broke in April. Damage caused by the state, corrupt local school officials, and private capital’s assault on teachers’ unions may doom public education in Detroit. DPS, run by the state since 1999, struggles with decaying buildings, a teacher shortage, a hemorrhaging student population, increasingly massive debt, the lowest test scores in the country and a union consumed by internal strife.

Most school “reform” talk is about financing and governance. DPS debt skyrocketed to $515 million under state control, yet the latest assault from the Republican legislature gives a free hand to charter schools while requiring eight more years of state mismanagement before Detroit residents could elect and empower our own school board! While the state wrangles over funding, 40% of the per-pupil aid in Detroit goes for debt service.

As for governance, all players are entrenched in their own demands. The elected school board, powerless under emergency management, rightly demands a return of their authority, noting that only poor Black districts are under state control. Detroit’s white Mayor Duggan wants an elected school board, but pushes for an appointed Detroit Education Commission (DEC) with powers to close, open and locate schools, and with some regulation over charters. The charter operators want no control and no regulation (the status quo, because regulation of charters is not enforced). The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, dominated by non-profits that would benefit from privatization, wants local control but an appointed DEC.

What we hear little about is a new mindset that would broaden the concept of education, and could improve Detroit education now. There are DPS schools that develop the whole child, not just test scores. These schools prioritize relationships with parents and community members. They hold high standards of critical thinking and appropriate behavior and help students to achieve them. They provide hands-on, experiential learning. They reject both the 20th century model that schools exist apart from their communities, and the 21st century emphasis on test scores.

Because Detroit is now a hodgepodge of school types, we need coordination, spacing and regulation of all Detroit schools, but not another appointed layer of bureaucracy. The elected school board should be governing DPS, but DPS serves fewer than half of Detroit students. Where are the ideas and political will to democratically establish a corruption-free, high-quality education system?

–Susan Van Gelder

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