Detroit Public Schools: Canary in the Coal Mine of Public Education

“Lock ‘em up!”, say Detroit Parents

In what can only be called a virtual collapse of social confidence, a group of impassioned parents demanded jail time for educators and district officials following the release of test scores that showed fourth- and eighth-graders had the worst math scores in the nation. City students took the National Assessment of Educational Progress test this year, and 69 percent of fourth-graders scored below the basic level in math and 77 percent of eighth-graders scored below basic thresh hold. The Detroit scores, revealed on December 9th, 2009, on the progress tests were the lowest in the districts 40-year history. The sample of students included 900 of Detroit’s 6,000 fourth-graders and 1,000 of the district’s 6,000 eighth-graders (December 12. 2009, Detroit parents want DPS teachers, officials jailed over low test scores (Bobb asking for 100,000 volunteer hours to help children with reading Santiago Esparza / The Detroit News–officials-jailed-over-low-test-scores/?imw=Y).

Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, called for jailing and civil lawsuits against anyone in the city’s educational system that is not doing his or her share to help properly educate children. “Somebody needs to go to jail,” she said in a tearful address to 500 parents gathered Saturday for the organization’s annual breakfast forum. “Somebody needs to pay for this. Somebody needs to go to jail, and it shouldn’t be the kids” (ibid).

The Detroit Parent Network hosts as its sponsors a slew of corporate financial organizations such as Charter One, but its brainchild was the Skillman Foundation, a philanthropic organization that it is also a part of the movement, ExellentSchoolsDetroit. They are also joined by the charitable and philanthropic Annie E. Casey Foundation. According to the Skillman Foundation: The ExcellentSchoolsDetroit initiative is a partnership of Detroit’s education, government, community, parent and philanthropic leaders that aims to develop a citywide plan that will ensure all Detroit children attend excellent schools. The partnership’s participants hope to take advantage of the community’s new sense of urgency and hope; results-drive and accountable school and city leadership; and additional funding from federal, state and philanthropic levels. This includes the $5 billion in federal Race to the Top and innovation funds, which will be distributed to states and school districts that are willing to raise learning standards, improve teaching effectiveness, close chronically failing schools and offer excellent alternatives, and use data to monitor student progress and hold schools accountable for results (ExellentSchoolsDetroit,

One can certainly empathize with both teachers and parents in this horrific situation begot by failing urban centers, a decimated economy, the disposability of youth (mostly working class and of color) gentrification and a lack of social investment in anything public. Yet the fact that the Detroit Parents Network is largely funded by private interests and philanthro-entrepreneurs looking to profit off the educational despair that is now a chronic feature of American cities, can lead one to believe that not only have many concerned parents been co-opted by giant business interests who have worked assiduously to privatize education for years, but they just might find they are allying with the same forces that helped bring down the American economy through profligacy, insidious and unleashed profit-seeking, deception, corruption, deregulation, or no regulation at all and a full out attack on the incomes and social benefits of American citizens (Say you want a revolution: Parents Revolution, ‘Astro turf’ organizations and the privatization of public schools,, October 5, 2009.

The move towards centralization and autocracy

A day after national test scores showed Detroit students performed the worst in the nation, the district’s emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, asked state lawmakers to give him full academic control over the schools, not just financial. This is follows on the heels of movements for mayoral control, which is another of the favorite strategies for the corporate class along with the Department of Education to seize public schools through centralization or a ‘unitary executive’ and thus lock out any participatory democracy among all school stakeholders. It is a disturbing trend we see now in eight cities that have adopted mayoral control and the idea of putting more executive power in the hands of managerial elites is sweeping the nation with the rabid encouragement of Duncan and his corporate cronies that run the Department of Education.

Robert Bobb currently has full financial control over Detroit schools, but the House and Senate are divided on whether to allow an academic takeover of an entire district. The House would allow the state school superintendent to take over failing schools, but balks at taking over an entire district — an idea the Senate supports. Bobb argued to the State House Education Committee that: The academic plan drives the financial plan (December 10, 2009 Low scores fuel DPS reform campaign State lawmakers worry proposed bills won’t be enough for district KAREN BOUFFAR Detroit News Lansing Bureau). Bobb has thrown his support behind disastrous educational reforms under consideration by state lawmakers, including alternative certification of teachers, takeovers of failing schools and linking teacher performance to the progress of their students on standardized tests. It’s all about winning the Race to the Top monies that Duncan has extorted states with.

With Detroit suffering so many of the greatest economic blows due to the economic free fall and collapse of the local and national economy, winning federal Race to the Top stimulus funds is supposedly critical for Detroit. Bobb asked State Superintendent Mike Flanagan to include $89 million for Detroit Public Schools in the state’s application for the ‘Race”.

Oddly among the handwringing over low test scores, there was no talk about the standardized tests themselves and how they might be obstacles to real student learning and teacher effectiveness. Now that Arne Duncan has set the parameters of the debate within the four corners of No Child Left Behind Act, using the economic largess of the Walton family fortune, the Broad Foundation, and the Gates foundation, ‘racing to the top’, or competitive learning and teaching tethered to inauthentic learning and assessment, is now the formulaic approach that will be shoved down the throats of parents, students and teachers by the neo-functional managerial class that presently controls most of American education. They will be aided and abetted by a sock-puppet press as ignorant about education as the new philanthropists and the sales pitch will be delivered by the coin operated politicians who legalize the sordid mess. So where’s the teacher’s union?

Detroit Teachers Accept a Downsized Contract

In mid-December 2009, the Detroit Federation of Teachers ratified by 60% a contract that includes a $500 per month pay cut, and merit pay, teachers evaluating teachers, almost $30 Million in health care cuts – the worst teacher contract in history. This is all good news for the Race to the Top proponents, most notoriously Arne Duncan and his misguided ideas about education and what it means to be an educated person. But this in no way excuses the horrific and ongoing capitulation by the American Federation of Teachers as stated recently by their Boss, Randi Weingarten, in a New York Times ad appearing in the Sunday December 13, 2009 edition of the Week In Review on p. 5, stated:

“What Matters Most: Detroit Teaches America a Valuable Lesson…This tentative agreement includes several reforms that will drive the enhancement of school achievement, including school based bonuses, peer assistance, and review and a new, comprehensive teacher evaluation system. At the same time, both parties recognize the severe financial conditions of the district and sought innovative approaches to saving money. Teachers, who are also struggling in these tough times, are being asked to sacrifice – by agreeing to a reduction in pay received now and deferring pay increases until the third year of the contract. Teachers will receive a bonus when leaving the district. The players also recognized the need to address skyrocketing health care costs and agreed to measures that will save the district millions…”( Sunday December 13 edition of the Week In Review on p. 5)

The problem of course is that it is just this type of capitulation to capital and its gatekeepers that the US public witnessed when they saw the automobile unions giveaway wages and benefits, (to take one example), year after year until their ‘Cadillac health care plans’, for which they sacrificed multiple years of increased pay, will now be targeted for taxation by the same corporate state that supported the auto Czars and Wall Street through bailouts while vitriolically blaming the unions. It is the same surrender to capital we recently saw in the ‘health care’ debacle. All this while American workers continuously are asked to produce more for less benefits and salaries in the interest of ‘negotiations’, which become the interests of the ruling class and its cohorts.

It seems that we never learn. What is needed is not a seat at the current bargaining table but an entire new table; the sad news is that in the absence of any theoretical or practical imagination on the part of teacher’s unions and civic leaders, the ‘new table’ has been and will continue to be designed and implemented in the form of a corporate take-over in education through Race to the Top, the hideous brainchild of the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family, Eli Broad and The Fisher family (owners of the Gap) to name just a few. But the problem is more than this. The failure of teacher unions to confront privatization, be it the giveaway of actual titles of public schools to charter school providers (outsourcers) in Los Angeles or the wholesale dispensation of pedagogical debates over how our children should be evaluated to see if they are developing the critical thinking and collaborative problem solving skills they will need to wrestle with the deracinated landscape that has become America, is disheartening to say the least; but even more so, it is devastating for legitimate opposition to the proposed Race to the Top and the insidious No Child Left Behind which it institutionalizes.

Adhering to strategies of give-aways that have marked the last thirty years of labor negotiations is no way to secure a decent wage for teachers, a fair salary, pensions, benefits, tenure, a decent education for kids or a civil society based on a social contract.

Forging a way forward through public alliances with all public and private workers

The problem is the piecemeal approach to political organizing that tends to doom the teacher’s unions nationally and locally. If teachers are to survive the public banshee calls for the destruction of their unions and more de-skilling of their profession boiled down to one common denominator, in-authentic testing, then teachers must now begin to forge alliances with other public and private workers, such as nurses, certified staff, other city workers and private sector unions in an effort to mount an all-out challenge to those who wish to diminish and denigrate all forms of the public realm and common good. While the Obama administration opposes a public option in corporate run health care he then turns around and proposes through his surrogates, Arne Duncan and his courtiers, a private, corporate option for public education. The hypocrisy is disillusioning, if not devastating to our nation and the workers who struggle each and every day.

All of the mendacious and destructive material and ideological conditions of despair  must be confronted with courage and mass mobilization. Fighting Privatization and anti-unionism Throughout the last three decades, privatization has been the cornerstone of the radical anti-teacher union advocates and think tanks. In fact, it has been the benchmark for the reconstitution of all public and social life, from the privatization of prisons, the military, hospitals, defense contractors and the day to day activities of virtually all institutions. This privatization has seen the gushing of profits upwards for a select few while the only thing that trickles down seems to be economic and social disaster wrought by neo-liberal economic policies. An elite managerial class of select and grand proportions is now in control of our educational systems in this country, as seen by the imposition of the Race to the Top and the extortion and arm twisting of the states if they are to receive any federal monies. Breaking the backs of teacher unions is the target for the new privatizers; in this way they can control the production lines of education, assuring that both teachers and students are placed in the panoptical conveyor belt of surveillance. If we as teachers do not offer a more radical and sustainable vision for education, the new corporate parasites will continue to beguile citizens with astro-turf organizations like Detroit Parent Network and the manufactured Los Angeles Parent Revolution, mostly the brainchild of Ben Austin and bankrolled by private interests, himself a corporate courtier on the LAUSD payroll, a Green Dot employee.  Austin himself is a staunch advocate of charter schools and executive control of schools under mayoral control.  These organizations play off legitimate concerns by parents who want only the best for their children; but they do this by proposing the same, tired privatization schemes that are responsible for the economic and social deterioration we are seeing today.

The real problem is capitalism as a failed economic system

In an article in Time Magazine, September 24, 2009 entitled “Detroit: The death – and possible life – of a great city”, the author, Daniel Okrent states the real problem succinctly: By any quantifiable standard, the city is on life support. Detroit’s treasury is $300 million short of the funds needed to provide the barest municipal services. The school system, which six years ago was compelled by the teachers’ union to reject a philanthropist’s offer of $200 million to build 15 small, independent charter high schools, is in receivership. The murder rate is soaring, and 7 out of 10 remain unsolved. Three years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, unemployment in that city hit a peak of 11%. In Detroit, the unemployment rate is 28.9%. That’s worth spelling out: twenty-eight point nine percent (Okrent, Daniel Detroit: The death – and possible life – of a great city”,8599,1925796,00.html#ixzz0avcC8gPa)

These are the material conditions in which Detroit citizens are forced to survive in daily. What was once a prospering manufacturing city has now been brought to its knees by the policies of neo-liberalism and late stage capitalism. Without confronting this reality, without understanding how the city has been hollowed out and looted by public policies designed to economically benefit the same philanthropists and venture capitalists that now mouth calls to ‘save public schools’, citizens will once again fall into a primitive trap set by a managerial and economic elite who have been salivating for more than 20 years to see the destruction of public education and the educational workers and their unions.

What is to be done?

If we are to secure the educational commons and seal if off from the crass entrepreneurs and privatizers that seek to parcel it out hierarchically based on race, gender and social class; if we are to protect our children from a virtual loss of childhood under siege by the ‘measureable outcomes’ and ‘efficiency targets’ begot by standardized tests linked to bankrupt federal policy; if we are to shed any attempts at merit pay, attacks on tenure and seniority and assure decent wages for teachers along with real pensions and adequate and affordable health care; if we are to put forth an educational reform plan based on what we know works (lower class size, teacher collaboration, participatory democracy, preparation time for teachers to develop creative lesson plans, well-crafted authentic teaching and assessment); if we are to educate the public about the urgency and exigency of maintaining a public education with an emphasis on learning to think critically and developing the values and dispositions necessary for citizenship education to advance participatory democracy in an effort to confront the daily horrors of increasing inequality, a lower standard of living, the death of social mobility, lack of participation in power, and divisiveness honed by racism, sexism, class, gender discrimination and gender inequality then we must seek active coalitions for social change. These coalitions must be diverse and they must grow; and they must involve more and more public and private workers who see nothing in the capitalist economic future but inequality, economic hardship, massive lay-offs, loss of participatory power and the further commodification of childhood, promoted and fostered by the neo-liberal politics of late stage capitalism.