Fifty Years Later. In Detroit the End of Brown: Separate and Unequal

schoolBy Bill Wylie-Kellermann

The Detroit Public Schools are being dismantled by design and effectively looted. Though Detroiters and the elected school board are consistently blamed for their demise, for twelve of the last fifteen years DPS has been under state control.

Mother Helen Moore, an attorney who heads the Education Task Force has become notorious for her fight on behalf of the schools, and tells the story over and over in community meetings. It’s well documented.

When the Detroit schools were first taken over in 1999, enrollment was stable (at 200,000 students), test scores were middle range compared to state averages and rising, an “Afro-centric” curriculum developed by the district over a number of years was in use, there was a $93 million budget surplus, and $1.2 billion from a bond issue intended by residents for building improvements. It was the latter, not any financial emergency, which drew the takeover. Then Governor Engler was determined that those improvement dollars not go to local minority contractors, but to suburban and outstate builders. Follow the money.

When control was returned to the board seven years later, the fund deficit was $200 million, enrollment had dropped to 118,000, the curriculum was gone, as was the bond money spent at shamefully inflated prices. One hundred million simply disappeared without audit or indictment. This is the background of emergency management in Detroit.

The elected board was returned to power in early 2006 with the burden of a deficit budget under which they labored for three years, including the 2008 economic collapse caused by the financial industry. The first Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bob (not an educator but a developer famous for brokering deals, and supported by Eli Broad if you know what that means), was put in place on the premise of a $135 million budget deficit. When he left the deficit had ballooned to $327 million and test scores had plummeted to among the worst in the nation. He was paid an annual salary of half a million dollars. Get the drift?

Disaster Capitalism and Public Education

We are at a point in late capitalism where corporations are turning inward to devour other corporations (hostile takeovers), municipalities (as in the Detroit bankruptcy) and basic social institutions (like education – public education in particular).

Globally, the architects of structural adjustment (austerity budgets, deregulation, selling off public assets, and privatization) had discovered that natural disasters afforded the best opportunities for quick takeover. With respect to education, the Katrina flooding is the example of opportunity provided – where New Orleans public education was effectively replaced by a profitable charter system. But they also discovered that disasters could be manufactured as well. We’ve experienced this in Detroit both as a city and as a school system. Defund. Make it fail or appear so. Take it over.

The Other Emergency Management in Detroit

Because of the bankruptcy recently completed, emergency management as a form of urban fascism is better known at the municipal level in Detroit. However, the Public Schools have been under emergency management now for five years. The destruction and dismantling of that system is what now bodes for the city as a whole.

Though Public Act 436, which allegedly authorizes emergency management, allows that elected bodies taken over and supplanted may vote after 18 months to put out an EM, the courts have ruled that this means the Governor simply has to install a new and different EM. Emergency Management is a permanent feature of black cities in Michigan.

The elected and unpaid school board, though constantly tarred in the media with corruption or incompetence or simply ignored, has continued to function “in exile” as a body conscientiously accountable to parents, students, and citizens, consistently resisting takeover. (Would that our city council had an ounce of such vision or fiber!) Believe it or not, the State Attorney General sued the district representatives on the board for being elected. Since they were duly seated and sworn in, the maneuver failed. Now a foundation-funded and nonprofit-orchestrated campaign seeks oust them altogether for a structure of “mayoral control.”

Emergency management has been the blunt instrument of privatization. More than half the schools in Detroit are charters. Though originally conceived as vehicles for creativity, charters have become a mainstay for union busting and privatization. In the industrial era schools prepared students for work in factory jobs, largely auto in Detroit. Now students are treated as state-funded commodities for extracting profits. The distinction between non-profit and for-profit charters is all but moot as even most of the former are managed by for-profit contractors. These schools compete with public schools, but have some choice in who they accept and who they don’t; and they are not held to the same standards of accountability as public schools for teacher certification or even testing.

In Detroit, headlines recently lamented that DPS had missed the deadline for federal funding of Headstart programs in the public schools. “Bungling black incompetence” is how that was read again in the suburbs – a loss of $4 million. But it was, of course, the Governor’s EM who missed the deadline. And not by accident: low and behold federal grants now fund Headstart as a privately contracted program in public school spaces.

Though parents were promised that more resources would be driven to the classroom, under Emergency Management administrative costs, actual and percentage wise, have nearly doubled: from $75 per pupil in 2008 to $143 per student today. Classroom size has taken a similar hit. Next year’s budget has proposed the target of 38 students per classroom be expanded to 43. With conflicts from such over-crowding, suspensions and expulsions go up; big contracts for restorative justice programs are justified. When a school board member pointed out that there weren’t enough chairs in a classroom for that higher number, an administrator replied, “With the absenteeism rate that wouldn’t be a problem.”

Special schools, even fully funded ones, have simply closed: Oakman Orthopedic (a facility gorgeously built for disabled students – see Kate Levy’s film, Because They Could: the Fight for Oakman School ) and The Day School for the Deaf (similarly equipped) are gone. Such buildings are abandoned or turned over wholesale to profiteers. Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant teens and young mothers which had an international reputation for integrated urban agriculture was handed over to a for- profit charter which simply gutted the program. (For a nostalgic look at the school see the film Grown in Detroit. It too will break your heart). The building is now home to a Headstart program run by the sprawling nonprofit, Southwest Solutions.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the second EM, Roy Roberts (also not an educator, but a retired auto exec), said he was told when he came that his job was to “blow up the Detroit Public Schools and dismantle it.” So far so true.

Racial and Spatial Restructuring

Detroit is being downsized and restructured geographically, as well as financially. The plug is being pulled on certain neighborhoods where poor black folks live. Predatory mortgages, now foreclosed, drive them out. Infrastructure is allowed to fail. Lights go out, fire stations close, cops withdraw. Water is shut off pushing people out; and water bills are attached to tax indebtedness, forcing another round of foreclosures. And yes, schools close in neighborhoods slated to have no living future.

Resources, meanwhile, are going into other neighborhoods close to downtown, along the waterfront, or connected to the pending light rail. There are neighborhoods where young corporate-type white people are moving exuberantly in. It’s their generation’s turn! These are people generally without children – who don’t yet care about schools. Who, without even a second thought, do not care about black children. Their indifference rules the day and the space.

The Educational Achievement (“Apartheid”) Authority

“Authorities” are another mechanism for eviscerating, circumventing, and privatizing government. We have many of these para-governmental authorities in the city: the Downtown Development Authority controls funding and land, the Lighting Authority replaces the Lighting Department, The Great Lakes Water Authority essentially takesover the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and will likely hire Evolia, an international water corporation to manage things. For two years we have not had a Health Department, but instead an Institute for Population Health. In like manner the EAA is not even properly an authority, but an inter-local agreement between Eastern Michigan University (where the Governor appoints the university regents) and the Detroit Public Schools (where the Governor appoints the Emergency Manager). Think of it as an agreement between the Governor and the Governor. And call it an authority, a “principality” if you will.

The EAA is supposed to be a state-wide school district for failing schools, but all of the schools are in Detroit. The idea was to take those in the lowest performing bottom 5% and turn them around. Two interesting coincidences: 1) almost all the students in failing school district are black and 2) when it came time to transfer the schools from Detroit to the EAA, the criterion seemed to be more a matter of which buildings had been newly renovated. One of the high schools transferred, Mumford, had been virtually rebuilt for $50.5 million. The building went to the EAA, but the reconstruction debt stayed with the DPS and comes out of the per student cost. Can you see how for DPS, those per pupil debt service costs went from $212 in 2008 to $1109 per pupil today? Not having the debt service in the EAA means there is more money per pupil for the private contractors.

Forgive all the numbers, but just a few more. The Chancellor of the EAA makes $325,000 per year (actually her total package approaches nearly half a million). She is new. The previous Chancellor made the same amount, but he was forced to resign under a scandal of corruption, but with a big severance package.

Cyber Curricula

In the era of the Gates Foundation and such, much of the sales and contractual profits to be made in education are technological: hard and soft. EAA students, almost entirely poor and black, have been test subjects for a new computer teaching program called Buzz. It came from Kansas City along with John Covington, first Chancellor of the EAA. At a cost to the district of some $350,000, it is marketed as providing students with an individualized learning experience. (For this and what follows see Curt Gayette, “The EAA Exposed,” Detroit MetroTimes)

Textbooks left behind in the schools taken over by the EAA were simply thrown in the dumpster. Teachers in such EAA classroom are no longer teachers– they are facilitators only allowed to help students in using the program before them. One teacher, Brooke Harris at Mumford, was disciplined (she was eventually fired) for attempting to bring books and textbook related materials into the classroom. “I was told that in the student-centered model, my role as teacher was primarily to supervise students to make sure they were using Buzz.”

Speaking out as an EAA teacher is courageous and costly. In the EAA, no union provides protection from retaliation. They tend more often to speak circumspectly, as in these pages, or anonymously and off the record.

Individualized instruction can sound great, but exclusive use of the computer screen is an assault on community-based learning. No give and take in group discussion with a teacher.

On its website and in its ads, the EAA touts fantastic progress in bringing a greater percentage of students to proficiency levels in reading and math. And Covington was regularly on the road speaking at conferences to promote and market “the product.”

Some of the evidence of shining performance was based on a test internally administered by the EAA. Teachers interviewed by the ACLU reported such pressure to produce positive test results that standard practice included allowing students to re-take the test if they didn’t do well the first time. Moreover, on the premise of individualized instruction and not wanting to “teach to the test,” the EAA attempted to avoid its students even taking the state MEAP tests – even though it was MEAP scores which were used to justify its creation. Teaching to the test is, of course, a bad idea, but you can’t have it both ways.

A close reading of MEAP test data released in February, however, shows that the majority of EAA students failed to demonstrate even marginal progress toward proficiency. Consider: 78% of students demonstrated no progress toward proficiency or even actual declines in math. The same was true for 58% of students in reading. Students who entered the system proficient had even grimmer results – the majority lost ground. (See Dr. Thomas Pedroni, Detroit News, April 21, 2014) This, even though EAA students are held for longer days and year round.

The Buzz program, to be sure, was still being built and improved while it was tested on Detroit students. On a stipend basis, additional curriculum content was added by a team of eight teachers. Half of them were recent college graduates who had not studied to become teachers, had no certification or curriculum design experience, but had been given five weeks of training in the summer before coming to Detroit. They were part of the Teach for America program.

Teach for America

When it opened for business, more than a quarter of the EAA’s faculty were Teach for America students. TFA is a controversial non-profit designed to get new university graduates teaching in low-income urban and rural communities. Participants are encouraged in their college coursework to take education classes and pursue certification, though that is not required and most have not. For those not certified there is the intensive five weeks of training, plus structures of ongoing support, and simultaneous education courses. Military veterans are actively recruited. Participants make a two year commitment. They come into to any given school or district at the entry base salary, but combined with the AmeriCorps program, they receive federal loan forgiveness and vouchers toward further education. If there is a union they are not forbidden to join.

What’s the problem? There is a narrative in circulation that bad teachers protected by unions and tenure are the problem. Though originally intended to fill teacher shortages in urban areas, the TFA program actually functions to replace veteran teachers. All teachers in EAA schools were terminated and required to reapply for their positions. More than a quarter of those were filled by TFA instructors fresh out of school. Do the math. There are no unions in EAA schools. The fact that studies are conducted comparing learning at the hands of veteran teachers vs. short-term recruits, suggests that replacement is part of the design. The for-profit charters are also full of TFA instructors, as are the public schools. With more of all to come.

Though TFA can be a short cut into an ongoing teaching career, the 2 year commitment, especially for those seeking loan forgiveness, graduate school funds, and resume experience, means recruits are not committed to a city, a school, or even a teaching vocation. The resignation rate in EAA schools has been extraordinarily high. Add TFA and you have a faculty in perpetual turnover.

African Americans comprise 13% of the TFA workforce. If those number hold in Detroit, it means students in a city that is 80% African American and in a failing school district which is virtually all black, are faced with teachers not from their culture, experience, or community. In a city where the young white savior narrative is already running strong, this is yet another version.

Late Breaking: Mayoral Control and New Orleans Complete?

As this issue goes to press there are moves in the lame duck Republican legislature to abolish the elected school board and put the public schools under direct mayoral control. The current mayor lived his entire life in a northern suburb, literally the whitest city in America. He was “elected” in a corporately-funded write-in campaign, winning by a landslide. He was the treasurer of the EAA when an unaccounted “loan” of $12 million was given it from DPS, but claims to be in the dark – to know nothing about it. A decade ago in a ballot measure Detroiters refused to give up the elected board to mayoral control. And more recently the City Council refused to put it again on the ballot. But like Emergency Management, it may simply be imposed. The difference between such a regime and emergency management is not worth talking about – simply more of the same. It’s expected that this will pave the way for the entire system to be chartered and union representation ended altogether, bringing the New Orleans-style disaster to completion.

A Dark Time

Though many are celebrating the bankruptcy, its structural adjustment, the give-aways of land and buildings and assets, the development dollars flowing, and the lucrative contracts to be had…this is a dark time for Detroit’s children, poor and black. They are being push down, pushed out, and pipelined toward prison. Sometimes I near despair. Still. There is hope in students who refuse to be so pushed and fight for their own education. There is hope in teachers who love Detroit’s young and give themselves for them. There is hope in those who hold the line and struggle on their behalf, in going on record with a history of resistance. There’s even hope in naming the darkness…and trusting the universe to bend toward light.

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