The story not told

— 6/13/2010
By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

The story coming out of the mainstream media about the fate of Detroit Public Schools obscures the real lessons of a painful struggle that has torn through our city.

The mainstream media story is that Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb made difficult but necessary decisions to close schools. He did this regretfully and only after a lot of community input. Along the way he has had to deal with radical obstructionists who tried to block him. But his concern for the betterment of Detroit’s children has allowed him to persevere.

Mayor Dave Bing, Financial Manager Bobb’s biggest supporter and likely successor, told the Detroit Free Press from Mackinac Island, “I’ve talked to Robert on more than one occasion, and he’s very disappointed that he has to do what he’s doing and that every Friday he has to go into court. He thinks that’s not a good use of his time. He thinks he should have the total authority.”

Announcing the final plan for closures, Bobb said, “The reality is that schools must close, but we have done our best to ensure that in every case, children will benefit from our decision.”

This story has a number of subplots. All elected officials in Detroit are corrupt (except the Mayor who is a bold leader). Detroit public school children are problems to be fixed. All schools are terrible. Teachers don’t care about kids, but Bing and Bobb do. Teacher unions are in the way. Everything will be fine if we just get those test scores up. We will probably need more money to do it.

The story concludes with Bobb sparing some schools to the cheers of the assembled, adoring crowd. Children shout, “We love you Robert Bobb.”

This tidy little story has been concocted by a media desperate to cover up the bullying, arrogance and outright incompetence of the process. It is the largest urban school closing in the United States. With the current closures, Detroit will have closed 166 schools since 2001. The majority of these were closed since 2005.

While the mainstream media claims “schools were spared,” the reality is that nine more closures are scheduled next year and four more in 2012, totaling 45 over the next three years. Just what Bobb planned in the first place.

So much for listening to community feedback and the marketing plan to increase enrollment. Plans are to close schools, increase class size, demoralize parents and teachers, terrorize principals, test students to death, and award contracts to demolish or refurbish buildings to friends.

We should not be fooled. Some schools have been kept open because many parents, students, teachers, principals and community organizations rallied. The fact that the initial list of closures included some of the best-loved, most respected and highest performing schools in the country, let alone the district, shows how little Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb knew about the schools, the children and the communities he had been entrusted with managing.

In the course of this struggle Detroiters have begun raising new questions. What kind of education do we need for our children? What is the purpose of education? Their answers begin with the recognition that decisions about our future cannot be given over to those who know little and care less about us. This is our city.

If Bing and Bobb had any sense, they would apologize to Detroit citizens for one of this country’s most undemocratic efforts to shape the lives of thousands of children and families.

Detroiters are resisting this intimidation. We have begun a genuine and far-reaching conversation about the future of education. The story not told is that this conversation, informed by the efforts of students, teachers, parents and community activists, cannot be stopped.