|An Injury to One Only Precedes an Injury to All
Who Can Answer the Social Crisis of the Schools?
The Michigan government takeover of the Detroit Public Schools is a result of deepening economic inequality and racial segregation. Inequality and racism are typically coupled with authoritarianism--an approach that is easy to spot in classrooms. Schools are like canaries in the mine of society. The more free the curricula and teaching methods, the more equitable and democratic the society. The school takeover is a dramatic shift away from freedom and democracy--a shift that will reverberate on teachers, kids, and parents throughout the United States. The takeover accelerates Michigan's crises of race, class, and democracy. Only organized parents, educators, community people, and students, have an honest stake in answering the attack. The Rouge Forum is organized to struggle for justice, democracy, and equality. We ask you to read our analysis and to join us to build real educational opportunity--through solidarity.
The school takeover has little to do with educating children. None of the dominant players in this crisis has a plan to educate urban youth. Neither the state legislature nor the governor, who seek to strip citizens of control of their schools, nor the ex-Detroit School Board, which countered with an order to institute school prayer, has any interest in the future of most kids. These maneuvers mask what is really going on: the takeover of the Detroit schools by New Detroit, an organization representing the rich while claiming to be a civil rights group.
The key to understanding the takeover lies in disparities in income, medical care, life expectancy, job opportunities, education, housing, etc., between majority whites and national minorities, between city and suburb, and above all between the rich and the poor. Detroit is the most segregated city in the U.S. The city has long been a site of organized decay: it lost more than one million residents in the last 40 years. It has a 100 year history of school board corruption and class struggle about education. The takeover is based on economic and political desires of elites who want to recapture Detroit real estate, not to create productive jobs but to guarantee the sense of security of suburban gamblers. The elites need to arrest the political action of citizens--teachers, kids, and parents--who might want their own forms of critical education. Some say the takeover is to seize the Detroit school budget surplus. Really, it is a bigger project, about social control--achieved through the control of what is taught--and how--and by deeper segregation..
Detroit has a long history of integrated rebellions, union militancy, and organized resistance, even if the city also has a shameful history of racist segregated schools and housing. The group which is best positioned to answer today's crisis powerfully is organized educators. Their traditional organizations, the NEA, the AFT, and professional groups, have failed to meet the challenge. The UAW, once the powerhouse in the city, lost 700,000 members in the last decade. With no sense of unionism--and few members-- left in them, union leaders now simply collect dues. Remarkably, in deed and in silence, all the unions support the sham takeover. The Rouge Forum, uniting not just educators, but educators across union and geographic boundaries, as well as parents and kids, is the only organization poised to analyze the crisis and take rational, rigorous, action.
Those who want to seize the schools excuse their actions with test scores and statistics about dropout rates. But the test scores of several other large cities in Michigan are lower than Detroit's. Moreover, test scores are not reflections of ability or achievement, but measures of parental income. Dropout rates are directly related to poverty, and none of the powers demanding the school seizure are prepared to address the question of poverty. Indeed, they are among those who create it. Governor Engler should be remembered as the fellow who illegally withheld special education funds from Michigan's schools for nine years, who destroyed the social safety net, and who now oversees the greatest state wealth gaps since the depression.
The Governor and the legislature point to the Chicago school takeover as a success. What actually happened in Chicago? The schools were militarized. Military recruiters are everywhere, and the ROTC programs are now the largest in the nation. The next war, probably over oil, will be fought like the last--poor kids spilling blood for the desires of elites. The military has no interest in gaining and testing knowledge in a free atmosphere--a key reason for school. Militarizing classrooms is simply not in the interest of parents, kids, or teachers. Chicago educators, whose AFT union supported the takeover, saw their academic freedom disappear in a sea of standardized exams, their seniority rights vanish, and their contract destroyed. Racist and class-biased tests are now the key activity in school. Chicago is not a beacon of good schools.
Who are the targets of the Detroit takeover? While New Detroit, Engler, and even the school board hint that the real target is the bloated administrator corps in Detroit; these same bureaucrats have no intention of giving up their own six-figure jobs. The targets are the minds of kids, the freedom of teachers and their wages and seniority rights, the democratic rights of Detroit citizens. If this assault can succeed in Detroit, it can be carried off elsewhere. An injury to one is an injury to all.
It is critical to New Detroit and the elites they represent that Detroit and Michigan citizens fail to develop solidarity to resist the attack on schools. Look at what has already happened. First, the mental institutions were closed and the patients dumped on the streets. Then the welfare system was eradicated and recipients joined the homeless. Then the state employee work force was laid off. All of this was accompanied by a downward spiral of wages, extended hours of work, and a huge prison building program. Now prisoners are forced to work for their keep--replacing workers in the furniture industry for example--and those workers are threatening to do crime to get in jail to get their jobs back. Striking Detroit newspaper workers who failed to battle the racist content and hiring practices of their employers lost their struggle--because they were betrayed by their leaders and because they could not mobilize the city to support them.
Part of divide and conquer tactics, which elites use to stay on top, are reward and punish schemes--like the Annenberg grants. Dozens of Detroit educators are desperately competing with each other over these grants--which will try to reform education without doing a thing about poverty or racism, like trying to wash the air on one side of screen door. The pathetic competition will only result in a few schools, and a handful of people, getting funds. But money is not the key factor in school reform. That can only succeed through community solidarity, which the Annenberg project is likely to destroy.
Forum is designed to build community, solidarity, across the lines
of race, community geography, age. We know we will have to fight someday.
We choose to start today, because justice demands organization.