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Mass Closures of Public Schools, Promotion of Charters Raise Fears of Privatized Detroit Education System

Detroit plans to close more than a quarter of its public schools at a time when private foundations are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape the Detroit public school system. The foundations are pushing for mayoral control of the school and the opening of dozens of new schools including charter schools. The plan is seen by critics as a move to privatize the city's school system. Put Robert Bobb into a 'search' on the home page of this site.

NOTE: Nate Walker moved to Detroit in 2002 as part of Detroit's only Teach For America corps. When Teach For America left Detroit, he stayed and worked for the Detroit Public Schools for five years.

Doug Ross is a former U.S. assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.

New Urban Learning, which runs the University Preparatory schools in Detroit, is partnering with Yes Prep Public Schools of Houston to bring one of America's top charter schools to Detroit's northwest side. The Wayne and Joan Webber Foundation is providing the funding, to the tune of $5.8 million, to develop the grades 6-12 school.

University Yes Academy will open this fall at 14669 Curtis, the site of a former Detroit Public School. "We love the idea of taking an abandoned building in a nice neighborhood and it becoming a community asset," says Doug Ross, a founding partner and chair of New Urban Learning. "All of the money goes to essentially turning a solid building into a modern, state-of-the-art facility, which will be a very attractive place to go to school."

One question we might ask is just who abandoned such schools.

by Nate Walker and Amy Goodman

AMY GOODMAN: This is "Democracy Now!," democracynow.org, the war and peace report. I'm Amy Goodman. We are broadcasting from Detroit. A central part of the plan to downsize Detroit centers on the city's school system. The Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, announced plans last month to close more than a quarter of the city̢۪s public schools.

ROBERT BOBB: It calls for the closure of 45 facilities in June with most programs moving to new or renovated facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: The school closings come at a time when private foundations are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape the Detroit public school system. The foundations are pushing for mayoral control of the school and the opening of dozens of new schools including charter schools. Doug Ross of New Urban Learning spoke at a recent news conference outlining a new initiative called Excellent Schools Detroit.

DOUG ROSS: The vision of this group is an education market place in Detroit with common high performance standards in which DPS, charter, and private schools compete for students around those academic standards. No more ambivalence about whether good performing charters harm DPS. Robert Bobb, as you've heard, has said, welcome more competition. He has told us over and over again, bring it on. That is what we intend to do for the benefit of Detroit kids. So bottom line, the old plan said to parents, wait, be patient, give us another five years to improve the school where your child goes. This plan says, uh-uh, the waiting is over, we're going to close low performing schools, we're going to open new ones, and parents, now you have to take the initiative to go find the best school for your child. Big difference, new day.

AMY GOODMAN: But the plan to transform Detroit̢۪s schools is seen by some as a move to privatize the city's school system. The elected school board has already been stripped of much of its power. As a state appointed emergency financial manager now has full financial authority for the school district. Private foundations are ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars to fund school reform, but the public has little to no say in how the money is spent. To talk more about this, we're joined by Nate Walker, a former Detroit schoolteacher and now a member of the School Development Team at the Boggs Educational Center. The Boggs Center is developing a plan to open its own neighborhood-based school next year. Nate, welcome to "Democracy Now!" Explain the way the system works. As I read about what is happening here in Detroit and talk to people, I am continually thinking about well, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and about Arne Duncan recently, the Education Secretary saying the best thing to happen to education in this country is after Katrina in New Orleans.

NATE WALKER: Yeah, It is interesting that New Orleans has now become the model for school reform.

AMY GOODMAN: There they closed the public schools, fired all the teachers who were unionized.

NATE WALKER: Absolutely. So in New Orleans there is 4 public schools that have opened now, and it's pretty much a charter run school system, and in many ways, that is what is happening in Detroit. Right before Robert Bobb announced that 44 schools would be closing, the Skillman Foundation along with other foundations announced that they would be opening 70 new schools in the next 5 years. So, currently in Detroit 70% of students in Detroit go to Detroit public schools and 30% go to charter schools. The Excellent Schools Plan, which was announced about a month ago, intends that by 2015 25% of students will go to Detroit public schools and 75% will go to charter schools. You can see the shift in who's going to be providing education in the city of Detroit.

AMY GOODMAN: How many kids go to school here in Detroit and how has that number changed?

NATE WALKER: When I began teaching in 2002, there was 160,000 students in the Detroit public schools. Currently, there's about 88,000. You can see that number has almost been cut in half. Families are leaving the city. The students go to other districts and other places, but there's also students leaving the public school system to enroll at charter schools as well. It is interesting in the context of the shift of who is going to be providing education, there is a couple things happening. First, as was mentioned in Doug's clip when he spoke, the foundations are not only going to be providing money to start new schools, they're also setting up an accountability network. They will be deciding what constitutes a good school to be closed or to be opened. So that is totally taken out of the realm of the public sphere where parents and community members decide on a type of education that is necessary for the city, and foundations and folks who are not necessarily considering those voices are deciding what is good education. In a certain way, that is going to be driven by what we call student achievement. In a sense, student achievement is a number of how students perform on tests course, it is a bottom line. It is a system that is being started and developed on this assumption of a bottom line that is the most important thing about schooling. It has changed what a parent̢۪s role in schooling is. Before, where a parent would have a voice, either by running for the school board or contributing to how education happens, and now they̢۪re delegated to the role of consumer where they exercise their choice as to where they can enroll but not necessarily how they can be involved in the schooling process. That is very similar to what's happened in New York City when Joe Klein took control of schools, you see the shift were folks call for parental involvement, but not in any of the decision making, so be involved on our terms because we know what̢۪s best for your children.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what schools are closing, what schools are opening?

NATE WALKER: The closing plans are not finalized, they'll be finalized in about two or three weeks, after town hall meetings have been conducted at the building that will be closed. And those town hall meetings were very scripted and regulated as to who can participate in them, and who had a voice there. Particularly in the neighborhood I live in, they're moving a school of choice in the school district. So, this is a Detroit public school that you have to essentially apply to get into. So, that school is staying open and moving to a new building. The neighborhood schools, which serve neighborhood students, are being closed. In this particular case, Burton International is moving to Owen, which was a neighborhood school, and Owen's program is being demolished and no longer going to be there.

AMY GOODMAN: What will happen to the kids who were going to Owen?

NATE WALKER: They will have the option, I suppose, to apply to Burton or to make a new school choice. Which becomes is problematic, because as they're opening new schools in Detroit there is a specific model that they're opening and that is a model where parents have to sign contracts to sort of say this is what we will do as part of the school community, and students have to sign contracts. In that process, it opens the door for folks to be pushed out. If they're being pushed out of charter schools--

AMY GOODMAN: Why would contracts push them out?

NATE WALKER: Well, if a school mandates that you are on time every single day and if you're not on time then the school may not be for you and you are in a situation where you cannot make it because you do not have transportation, or life may somehow get in the way, some of the contracts stipulate, like if you are absent four times during the school year-- well that is sort of unrealistic, I think, to expect that families who will now be traveling across town to get to a specific school will be able to be there on time every single day of the school year. It doesn't necessarily consider the situation that folks' lives are complex.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the kind of organizing that is being done right now and also, who is deciding the schools that are being opened? Who is in control of the school system?

NATE WALKER: The organizing happening now in Detroit is primarily around the school closures. Myself and some former teachers also are trying to organize a vision for a new type of neighborhood school. Because if neighborhood schools are closing, we are trying to figure out how we can set up a school in our neighborhood that considers the voice of the community. We hope to organize folks around that idea, and around this neighborhood school. In terms of who decides how schools are open, in Michigan, schools become chartered through public universities, through the existing school district, or through a community college. So there is sort of a small network of universities in Michigan right now that charter schools, and these are very competitive spots. I think there is one university accepting applications right now for three or four spots and 80 folks applied. One of the challenges within that is last year, three charter schools were open in the city and of those three schools, they were being managed by a sort of national corporate management companies. And so, if citizens, or parents, or teachers want to open a charter school in Detroit, it is very difficult, it is a very difficult process because they're competing with sort of corporate management companies who have a fast lane into the authorization process.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk a little about the Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, the tradition he comes out of?

NATE WALKER: I think Robert Bobb was brought in as Emergency Financial Manager, is making decisions, at first anyway, in the realm of what's best for the district. It is a shrinking district as well, and so there were certain decisions that had to be made when your student population drops in half over the course of five or six years. Currently, he is pushing very hard to get control of academics as well. In that process, he is very much making decisions with Skillman and the charter schools who are the operators who are now opening schools also.

AMY GOODMAN: And the school that you were a teacher in, who is it run by?

NATE WALKER: Doug Ross of University Prep and New Urban Living.

AMY GOODMAN: And Doug Ross is really spearheading the whole charter schools movement here?

NATE WALKER: Yes. He absolutely is. It's interesting, he started University Prep under what was called the Big Picture Model, modeled after a charter school in Rhode Island in 2000 or 2001, and this was a school that was based on the premise of project learning and community involvement. About three or four years ago, there was a shift in University Prep where they began to shift their model. You start to see some different things happen with the curriculum, they became very much more test oriented, and much more concerned with how they can move their bottom line of student achievement than necessarily, I think, participating with the students. When I worked for Doug, a group of teachers and myself came together and said there is a model of education here that is worth defending. And so, we began to organize about how we could defend that. Doug was certainly not supportive of that.


NATE WALKER: Because I think he had a different vision. I think his vision was to replace the public school system. He has gone as far as saying this. He had a vision of replacing the public system with starting certain schools that were very easy to model. An education is messy work, and at times you cannot have a cookie cutter model across communities. When we invested in making this school better, it did not necessarily fit the model that he was trying to push on the rest of the city.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, talk about the school that you and members of the community are organizing now. That the Boggs Educational Center is organizing.

NATE WALKER: The founders of the Boggs Educational Center met in 2002 at the Boggs Center, where Grace was hosting discussions called the Freedom in Schooling Discussions.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Grace Lee Boggs?

NATE WALKER: This is Grace Lee Boggs, yes.

During those discussions, we talked about what transformative education would look like in the city of Detroit. We begin to tackle questions like why are we educating people and how can we educate them in a way that deepens their humanity and ultimately empowers them to become agents in their own lives? Those discussions for us continued for seven more years where we began to formally meet and talk about how we can take some of that theory of education as transformation and turn it into a program for our community. We're in the process where we've began to develop our curriculum and the type of school that we want, one that becomes a community hub. We don't intend on opening for another year because we want to do a year of intensive committee planning where we engage folks to really invest in the process of planning a school.

AMY GOODMAN: Well Nate, I want to thank you very much for be with us. Nate Walker, former Detroit teacher and a member of the School Development Team at the Boggs Educational Center which is named for Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs.

— Amy Goodman and Nate Walker
Democracy Now!





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