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Detroit Schools: The System Now At Ground Zero

Ohanian Comment: One of the deeply heart-breaking experience of my life was a few years ago when Rich Gibson took me on a tour of Detroit, the city he loves. It was hard for me to grasp that this devastated area was an American city, that we allow this to happen to our people.

Now news headlines scream "takeover." Right. As Rich Gibson observes, this is the third takeover of the Detroit Public Schools in the last 15 years--and none of them have addressed the real issue: poverty.

Rich offers an important analysis of what the real problem is in Detroit. HINT: It isn't privatization.

by Rich Gibson June 2011

In 2010, Arne Duncan, sneering bad-boy school boss to grinning demagogue Obama̢۪s good-fellow-full-of-hope, declared Detroit to be "Ground Zero," in schooling because, true enough, Detroit schools scored last in reading, science, and mathematics in national exams in 2010.

In mid-June, 2011, Duncan joined Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and "Emergency Financial Manager," Roy Roberts in bombing Ground Zero, perhaps into oblivion this time.

The trio announced in a press conference on June 20 at Detroit's relatively elite Renaissance High School that 34 of Detroit's worst performing schools, judged by test scores, would be placed in a "System of Schools," which, eventually, would include the worst schools in the state.

EFM Roberts is a 72 year old former boss at the failed General Motors Corporation, known now in Michigan as Government Motors. Accustomed to having people do what they’re ordered to do, fast, Roberts declared that the Detroit Public Schools are in much worse shape than he initially imagined–and he hasn’t even taken a full tour. Roberts signed a one year deal in May, replacing Eli Broad appointed Robert Bobb.

The System (note, it' s not a school system but the inverse), would move full academic responsibility to individual principals and teachers, devote "95%" of the budget directly to the classroom. This is all to take effect in 2012. We shall learn why below.

Celebrity new-moneybags Eli Broad doubled down with a promise to send every System grade to two years of college, half the "Kalamazoo promise," created by old-money genteel anonymous benefactors in that city of four years of college to Kalamazoo grads.

Nothing in the trident assault addresses the fact realities of racist unemployment and incarceration in Detroit where generations of people have been unemployed and subsequently jailed for crimes that read like tails from Les Miserables.

In 2010, the mayor admitted that real unemployment in the city is above 50% and youth unemployment far higher. In the same year, the city was named, "America's most dangerous city," a title it has held off and on for twenty years. Two-thirds of the homicides in the city go without investigation--by a police department so corrupt, for the last 60 years, that federal overseers were assigned--who were then corrupted by the then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (now in prison) who began sleeping with the top fed.

Forty-eight buildings in the downtown city center stand vacant, not unlike the rest of Detroit where two-thirds of the buildings, commercial and residential, are vacant. Mayor after mayor has promised to bulldoze 10,000 houses a year, and failed. Current Mayor Bing suggests that citizens should be moved to specific areas in order to save money from providing services, like fire and water, to areas so completely abandoned that only one or two houses occupy several square blocks. There is, though, no money to take care of the moves.

Of this, and worse--nothing from the System's analysts.

Nor is there much analysis of the condition of DPS administrators and governance. One indicator, in the last school board election nobody ran for the lone vacant seat.

But the System is announced and, for many citizens, it looks like a firestorm.

More bombs dropped on Tuesday, June 22, and Wednesday as well. On Tuesday, Roberts announced that Eastern Michigan University would run the System as a turnaround project. And the System became an Education Achievement Authority. Roberts will serve as CEO of the Executive Committee of an eleven person cabal, two from DPS, two from EMU, seven appointed by the Governor. The imbalance of votes isn't even gently hidden. The internal Executive Committee (five) will appoint a "Chancellor."

The many layers of hierarchy don't seem to match the streamlining purposes of an EFM, nor do what appear to be the limitless duplications of positions farther down the ladder.

Odd thing: many education faculty at EMU, as of Tuesday, never heard of the project and many said that if it threatened the Detroit Federation of Teachers, they would have nothing to do with it.

The question of why Roberts by-passed mid-town Detroit Wayne State University is unclear. WSU, however, is home to a fairly active American Federation of Teachers local.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers bargained what may have been the worst contract for school workers in history in the last round of talks. That deal included a $10,000 pay cut for educators which, purportedly, is paid back on separation, and significant health benefits concessions. Concessions, I argued then, don't save jobs but only make employers, like sharks for blood, want more. That contract expires in 2012, the same time the System comes into play.

On Wednesday, Roberts announced the Detroit Public Schools 2012 budget (now on the web site) which includes a projected 10% pay cut (about $7,500) for teachers and related cuts in health and pension benefits as well.

The glitch for Roberts, which he may not be aware of, is that the budget projects for 66,630 students, down from an official approximation of 73,000. DPS however, has been losing about 12,000 students a year. The overly optimistic projection of a loss of less than 7,000 bodies, attached to funding, is a DPS habit, but hardly a way for a CEO to count his beans, unless he's a modern-day CEO who's not accountable for anything significant.

Nobody can trust figures coming out of the incompetent and corrupt DPS administration, especially not student count numbers which haven̢۪t been trustworthy since, at least, 1996 when, along with former Wayne State professor Michael Peterson, I performed an informal audit. The real figures have been inflated by about 10,000, for years. If a real audit is performed, the DPS budget deficit, now officially at $327 million, likely a gross underestimate as well, will bloom.

The remaining problems with the System:

  • This is the third takeover of one form or another in the last 15 years. None of them addressed poverty, or the system of capital that requires, organizes and locates it, and every one of them failed completely. Rather, they looted DPS of even more resources and, in most cases, fled town.

  • The System has no plan to shift the current academic programs which Roberts claims only need to be adjusted. DPS, I note, is Houghton Mifflin’s favorite client and will, therefore, remain so, kids tortured by racist high-stakes exams which their birthrights set them up to fail.

  • The plan to reduce the budget deficit is, in a sense, possessed: DPS will float more loans, bonds, in order to pay its debts.

  • The superhuman personnel who will implement the plan: who are they? Who is going to come to Detroit to teach in a System that will likely wipe out their hopes for job protection before they arrive, that will pay them less, and put them in a position where those who are deemed to fail, shaved off piece by piece inevitably as a Duncanesque Race is run, are Systematized out the door?

  • There is room for debate about exactly what this move is. The System is not New Orleans, nor any of the other models some critics and admirers have raised together.

    In my view, this is the Corporate State at work, a full blown partnership of business and government, and soon, labor tops, working almost seamlessly, but not entirely seamlessly, in order to preserve social control through a shell game for hope in a volatile city, to gain some bought and paid for fame (Broad) and perhaps make some bucks (Houghton Mifflin).

    General Motors, I note, was not privatized, nor were the banks. GM was corporatized and the banks were arranged in a good-bank vs bad-bank formula that looks similar to the System in DPS.

    Others will argue it is privatization.

    It is an important difference as one path, the latter, leads resisters to want to support the Detroit "Public" Schools which are, in my eyes, unsupportable and hardly public but completely segregated. Most of the resisters are engaged in a ballot initiative campaign to abolish EFM's. It will not work. Suburban voters like it, an indication of the outlook of much of the US population--and a problem.

    Voting alone will never take people out of the multi-pronged assaults on the dispossessed of the US.

    The former analysis leads to much different conclusions.

    The good reader can speculate.

    It remains, though, that the heads of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, once a bellwether local in the American Federation of Teachers, has moved again and again to demoralized school workers, to foist concessions on people with false promises of saving jobs, and has done all it can to silence, and expel, serious opposition.

    For this, in June DFT boss Keith Johnson was named as a "Man of Excellence," by the once-proud Michigan Chronicle, now the voice of the Detroit and area black bourgeoisie.

    Many of the best and most experienced teachers, including those who helped lead the DFT's famous wildcat strikes of the last decade, have left or are leaving DPS.

    We shall see if those who remain, both those in the schools targeted for the System's bombs and their colleagues in other carved up districts within DPS, Priority Schools vs Neighborhood Schools for example, can develop the ethics, courage, solidarity, and organization to fight the organized decay of reason itself in what was once touted as the finest urban school system in the United State. Here's to the rebels.

    Rich Gibson is an emeritus professor at San Diego State University. Rgibson@pipeline.comM/i>

    — Rich Gibson





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