Suit in Detroit Strikes Back at Assaults on Democracy in Education

by Rich Gibson

Program Coordinator for the Social Studies
Wayne State University, Detroit
April 24 2000

Published in The Michigan Citizen May 2000

There are at least three easily identifiable trends in education today, each of which attacks the democratic rights and egalitarian hopes of people who see school as a pathway to a more fair and just society. The three prongs of the assault are: vouchers and charter schools, standardization of the curricula attached to high-stakes tests, and the takeover of entire school districts by state mandates. In Detroit, in late May, a critical legal action directed primarily against the state takeover of the Detroit Public Schools, will test the power of each of these methods which seek to deepen segregation, regulate knowledge, and intensify the alienation of citizens from the institution which holds their highest aspirations: education. 

In early 1999, the Detroit public schools were seized by joint action of a Republican Governor who has ambitions for higher office in his party, and a Democratic Mayor who has similar desires to move up in his party. Together, they assisted in the passage of a law that abolished the elected Detroit School Board and established a new seven member board, appointed by the governor, with the mayor's assent. Detroiters will not be allowed to vote on their school board until 2005, should the legislation be upheld. 

One member of the new board, appointed by the governor, holds a veto over any actions the rest of the members of the board might take. The veto appeared in harsh relief when six members of the takeover board chose to hire a new Chief Executive Officer. The governor's appointee said, "Nay," forcing an extended search. 

The members of the takeover school board can only be seen as representatives of wealth. One is the mayor's top aide. He lives in Detroit, one of only three members who do. He sends his children to Catholic schools. Another is the vice-president for marketing for a German corporation, Daimler Chrysler. A fourth is a top executive of the Skillman Foundation and New Detroit, an organization founded during the 1967 Detroit uprising, composed of retail and industrial elites from Ford and Hudsons, designed to convince citizens that, "There is no we and them, there is only us." Of the two women on the board, one is a new area resident, the president of a small Catholic college. The other is the suburbanite owner of a maquiladora plant on the southwest side of the city (her predecessor, also a maquiladora owner, was removed from office when it became clear she was afraid to enter the city to attend meetings, being counted as present on a cell phone). The state treasurer is the governor's appointee, a white fellow from a suburb of Lansing who required full police SWAT teams to bring him into early board meetings. The sole community person on the board who lives in the city and sends his children to public schools owns a martial arts studio on the east side. Other members of the board call him, "The Citizen." 

Initially, the takeover allowed any single appointed board member to veto the actions of the rest. When the "Citizen" vetoed a vote on an interim CEO, a white suburbanite who had earned his reputation as a dictator while president of the city university, Wayne State; the state moved quickly to change the law. The CEO was selected despite the "Citizen's" veto. 

The takeover of the schools coincided with two events: the opening of casinos in Detroit, fragile institutions which cannot survive in the midst of another of the city's many uprisings of class and race violence; and the realization that a nearly $2 billion dollar bond issue, earmarked for school construction, had gone unspent for five years-and was ready for distribution. 

The takeover board made a series of promises, above all to hire a permanent CEO, but also to deal with a purported budgeting crisis, to hire 1,000 new teachers and lower class size, to initiate massive construction projects by spending a 1.8 billion dollar bond the citizens had approved years earlier, to restore trust between administrators, educators, students, and the community. 

Things went badly. The board failed to attract 1,000 applicants in a massive hiring program in the summer of 1999. All told, taking attrition into account, there has been no appreciable increase in the teaching force. However, the board has hired uncertified teachers (in a district where more than 10% of the educators are uncertified), divided elementary school rooms with six-foot partitions, and declared the class-size problem, "addressed." 

The board initiated a massive summer construction project, designed to prove that the previous board was too corrupt and inefficient to even spend the money which was allocated to it. However, when it was learned that no bids had been submitted on the project, that cronyisim was rampant, the construction venture was halted and Detroit students returned to classrooms without windows. 

The CEO swore, at the time of his appointment in May 1999, to obey the law--that he would stay but one year, and in that time would resolve the chronic problems in the district personnel office, and "deal with the principals," who he called the first line of incompetence. Nothing whatever has been done about the personnel office, the same people remain in place, and, from August to December 1999, about 12% of the educator force never received a paycheck, due to "system problems." The CEO, in a meeting with all the principals, informed them that in a year one-half of them would be dismissed. Then, working with the state legislature, he abolished the Detroit principal's union, following a path he blazed when he earlier wiped out the trades and constructions unions representing blue collar workers. The impact of this was to throw principals into a frantic race to prove their worth, by hyping scores on standardized exams and pounding down on school workers who insist that the exams only predict race and parental income. 

Then, with easily foretold heavy-handedness, the CEO and the board provoked an illegal nine-day wildcat educator's strike, a battle that involved thousands of school workers, parents, local citizens, and children in a fight for "Books! Supplies! Lower Class Size!" The strike was eventually dissolved by the officers of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, who had supported the takeover, the standardized exams that buttressed it, and who opposed the strike from the outset. The chief impact of the strike outside the city was to show working people that the Michigan anti-strike law, when faced with 12,000 strikers united with thousands of community people, meant nothing. Inside the city, the strike heartened activists. But the promises at settlement of books, class size, and supplies, were never met. Shortly after the educator strike, before winter set in, students began strikes of their own, aimed at issues ranging from demanding protection against the two-dozen rapes that occurred near schools, to books and paper. 

The legal requirement to find a new permanent CEO has gone flat as well. Having instituted a national search for nine months, the board returned with two finalists, both so clearly unfit to head a major district that the Governor and the Mayor quietly agreed to stage a brief row, then to have both candidates vetoed. The search continues as the one-year appointment of the temporary CEO is extended. 

The promises of educational reform mask the reality of more high-stakes standardized tests which not only served as the basis of the school takeover, but now become the reason for retaining thousands of students, who did not inherit the income to pass, in their grades. Parents are streaming out of the Detroit district to charter schools and to other districts which have opened there doors as "schools of choice." An amendment to publicly fund religious schools with state vouchers will be on the November ballot. Capital, in what was once the industrial center of the U.S., now can only offer empty spectacles like casinos to the citizenry. It can, though, in this thinly prosperous era, split apart citizens with almost razor sharp precision, which is what the tests, the vouchers, and the takeovers are all designed to achieve. 

With this as the social context, a lawsuit demanding an injunction against the takeover of the schools, goes forward in late May. The suit, filed by radical Detroit labor-lawyer George Washington, argues that the takeover assaults the 14th (due process) and 15th Amendments (voting rights) to the Constitution, and overturns the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but perhaps more significantly the suit demonstrates the relationship that, "from the 1830s forward, the fights for public education, for democratic control over that education, and for an end to slavery and racial discrimination have been inseparably linked together." 

The 14th and 15th Amendments passed during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, a high-water mark in democratic activity. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a direct result of the Freedom Summers led by the Civil Rights Movement. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is, according to the ACLU, " probably the most effective civil rights law ever enacted.... immediately outlawed the worst Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests and other devices that kept African Americans out of the voting booth... it has become a weapon against the more subtle schemes that have rendered minority votes all but meaningless." All three laws are under assault, an attack couched in terms of improving educational systems in crisis: Chicago, Cleveland, among others. 

The suit illustrates the persistent struggle for knowledge, democracy, and racial and economic equality that underscores the historical development of relations of work, school, and communities, and serves as a reminder of the complex battles fought by those who came before. The immediate impact of the suit, locally, will likely to once again focus and mobilize the sizeable force of citizens, teachers, and students which was born during the fall strikes. Nationally, the suit will serve as a harbinger of understanding how the struggles of the future will develop, in the courts and on the streets. Although it is among the most racially segregated cities in the U.S., Detroit, the scene of the origins of industrial unionism, the anti-racist Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and repeated citizen rebellions, has never been a place where the carrot and stick politics of elite rule have ever been long employed with success. 

To Rich Gibson's Home Page

 Web page created by Amber Goslee