Detroit Schools: The System Now At Ground Zero

by Rich Gibson July 2011

On June 20th Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder joined U.S Education political boss Arne Duncan and the “Emergency Financial Manager,” of the Detroit schools, Roy Roberts, appointed in May by Democratic Governor Granholm, in a press conference to announce a new, state-wide, “System of Schools.” The System would be initiated in 2012 by combining the worst schools in Detroit, judged by test scores, and later expand by including the worst schools in the state.

Days later, on June 25th, Roberts revealed a school budget plan that demands a 10% pay cut (around $7,500) from teachers whose Detroit Federation of Teachers’ contract in 2010 already conceded $10,000 a year per teacher and considerable cut-backs in health benefits. In addition, Roberts proposed to reduce the total staff by 853 people, this in a city where unemployment is estimated at more than 50% by the mayor. Roberts was met by loud protests at his budget unveiling at the relatively elite Renaissance High School.

In 2010 Duncan, sneering bad boy educator boss to grinning demagogue Obama’s good fellow full of hope, declared Detroit as “Ground Zero,” in schooling because, true enough, Detroit schools scored last in reading, science, and mathematics in national exams in 2010. The System is yet another turnaround scheme in a city that has been, rather than turned around, upended again and again. More than 1.2 million people moved out of Detroit since 1970, in part because of the failing school system.

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 quickly 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, replacing Broad Foundation trained Robert Bobb. Eli Broad had supplemented Bobb’s salary to bring it to more than $450,00 a year. EFM Roberts signed on for nearly $200,000 less.

The System (note, it’s not a school system but the inverse), as described by the troika 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-money-bags Eli Broad doubled down with a promise to send every System graduate to two years of college, amounting to half the “Kalamazoo promise,” created by more genteel old-money anonymous benefactors in that city of four years of college to Kalamazoo grads.

Nothing in the tridents’ assault addresses the factual 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 Miserable.

Other elites like functionaries of the Skillman Foundation join Broad in their interest in the Detroit schools although Skillman activity goes back nearly 15 years when one of their agents paid an automotive ad agency $500,000 to try to convince locals that DPS is a “example of excellence,” and a good place to send kids. Few people bought that, or Detroit cars.

In 2010, 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 debased 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 unoccupied, often stripped of all value. Mayor after mayor has promised to bulldoze 10,000 houses a year, and failed. Current Mayor Bing (yes, Dave the basketball player) suggests that citizens be moved to specific areas in order to save money from providing services, like fire and water, from 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 social context, and worse—nothing from the System’s analysts.

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 becomes and 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.”

Odd thing: many education faculty at EMU, as of June 23, 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. The DFT leadership joined Robert Bobb and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to sell the deal to the rank and file behind a claim that concessions would save jobs. Concessions, I argued then, don’t save jobs but only make employers, like sharks for blood, want more.

That contract expires in 2012, not coincidentally, the same time the System comes into play.

When Roberts announced the Detroit Public Schools 2012 budget, he may have overestimated his resources. 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. An inaccurate count is rather like raising the US budget deficit levels, using fake debt to pay real debt.

Nobody can trust figures coming out of the incompetent and corrupt DPS administration, especially not student count numbers which haven’t been trustworthy since, at least, 1996 when, I performed an informal audit. The real figures have been inflated by about 10,000, for years. If a bona fide audit is performed, the DPS budget deficit, now officially at $327 million, likely a gross underestimate as well. In addition, DPS has always counted on student absenteeism to offset what would be, in “neighborhood schools,” booming class sizes. Silence about the mythical students who are always absent adds to the corruptness of the entire system.

It is unclear what the System of Schools will mean to the Detroit school board. At least 34 city schools are projected to begin the System, leaving them out of school board control. The board, however, has battled the EFM system since its onset, under Governor Granholm, the Democrat, and recently won, or recovered, control over DPS academics in court.

Still, board control is not necessarily the ideal of what most people think of as elected local control. The board contains a random selection of citizens who hardly represent the best of the city. One has had his six children removed from his care by Child Protective Services. In an election for a board vacancy in early 2011, nobody ran.

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, 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).

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 them 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. Let us be clear: the education agenda is a war agenda, a class war and empire’s war agenda.

The core issue of our time is the reality of the promise of perpetual war and escalating inequality met by the potential of a mass, activist, class conscious movement to transform daily life and to restore reason itself, connecting it to power that can be sustained, not betrayed by demagogic politicians.

The former analysis, solely addressing privatization, 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 demoralize 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.

The likely winner of the last DFT presidential election, what I saw as a vote fraud, Steve Conn, remains suspended from membership on charges so preposterous that only the AFT tops could consider them seriously—as they are following “hearings,” about his suspension. Results are still pending.

For all this, DFT president 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.

These largely unnoticed rank and file educators have, over and again, tried to reach out to the Michigan Education Association which represents nearly every other teacher in Michigan but has repeatedly rejected solidarity action with Detroit. Sheer racism has a lot to do with this. As a divide and rule ploy, it continues to play well for some, tragically for most.

While some connections exist between MEA and DFT members, no formal alliance of any size has ever been formed, meaning, for MEA, the old saw, “an injury to one only goes before an injury to all,” came true in demands for concessions from MEA members, later. On June 30th, the state legislature moved to strip tenure rights from all Michigan teachers.

For DFT members, absence of solidarity with MEA means they fight alone in a segregated city, just blocks from one of the richest counties in the United States, suburban mostly white and wealthy Oakland, where, apparently, few care much about their fate. In this case, unions like DFT and MEA do more to separate people than unite them.

Elites however, black and white, on both sides of the notorious 8 Mile Road divide, Oakland from Detroit, seem to play like Jim Crow allies in the north and south of the 1950s, each applauding the opportunism of the other–all promoting a false peace, serenity about still another fabricated turnaround, as they shield from light harsh levels of oppression in schools and out.

We shall see if those who remain with DFT, 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.