Detroit: New Union Leaders Meet Massive Closures, Layoffs

Rich Gibson, San Diego State University
January 2007

The Detroit Public Schools’ 2006-2007 year began with a 16 day school worker strike (covered in Substance, 9/06), betrayed by the leaders of the Detroit Federation of Teachers who rammed through yet another concessions contract. But now other shoes have dropped.

In January, a new slate of DFT leaders will take office, led by President-elect Virginia Cantrell, and Vice-Presidents Sandra Ambrose and Greg Johnson. They defeated six-year incumbent DFT President, Janna Garrison and Vice-President Keith Johnson, with 56% of the vote. The Cantrell-Johnson slate promised more democracy in the union and an end to the stream of concession packages of the last decade. Cantrell had served for years as an elected leader under Garrison, while Johnson is relatively new to union leadership. What many people saw as a more radical slate, led by Steve Conn who sparked the 1999 Detroit teachers’ wildcat strike, wound up with but 9% of the vote.

The landslide for Cantrell, a white teacher described as a, “straight-shooter,” by dozens of co-workers, represents a massive rejection of the collaborationist policies of the old DFT. However, some educators remain skeptical about Cantrell’s commitment to change, fearing that she is not willing to use the mandate to sweep away old staffers habituated to the steady retreats of the last 20 years. Cantrell, however, promised to address the key issues that motivated every job action in DPS: books, supplies, lower class size. Whether Cantrell and her new cohorts will be able to build on the common recognition that concessions do not save jobs, or schools, remains to be seen. Pressure from the rank and file, though, can be clearly seen in the voting results.

In November, Circuit Court Judge Susan Borman dismissed contempt charges against the officers of the DFT, charges brought by the district for the strike at the start of the school year. Michigan has one of the most draconian of anti-teacher strike laws (fines and jail time for officers, potential dismissal for teachers)  and Borman’s clear refusal to enforce it angered conservative legislators, and offered evidence of the truth of the old saw, “The only illegal strike is one that fails.”  Three weeks following Borman’s ruling, DPS administrators turned over more than $1 million in dues that they had withheld from the DFT, money collected from the start of the strike.

These limited school workers’ victories quickly ran into the reality of daily life in Detroit. On January 5, school boss William Coleman III announced his plan to close 52 Detroit schools by 2008, 47 of them to close in the summer, 2007. That’s about 20 percent of the city’s 232 schools and almost invariably means layoffs, unless the threat of educator job actions can shift the cuts to meet the long-time demand for lower class size.

Education statistics, like population figures, can rarely be trusted in Detroit. Many players have interests in pumping the figures, including teachers who often gain from inflating class tallies, counting on routinely high absenteeism. Administrators have repeatedly exaggerated total student body counts, but students poured out of DPS at a rate of about 11,000 per year (and $7,000 lost per kid) for the last 4 years. In 2006, keen interest from the legislature produced what may be a more accurate count, indicating a loss of 12,600 students—quickly blamed on the teacher strike that began the year. However, what may well have happened is that a more honest count simply brought the numbers up to date.

In 2004, the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit closed all of its Detroit schools. DPS has already closed 30 schools and Coleman III has said he plans to close 100. The district projects that its student population will drop below 100,000 very soon, meaning it will be about ½ its peak size.

The collapse of DPS is intertwined with the more or less organized decay of what was once a city with nearly 2 million residents. The population is now around 800,000, 85 % black, and with the collapse of the auto industry, the city is reeling in despair. Forty-seven percent of the city is listed as functionally illiterate. The younger, tax-paying residents the city desperately needs will not move in if the schools are failing, and the schools are breaking down because the old industrial economy unraveled—and because racism offers not only the opportunity to ignore the crisis in Detroit, but also the chance to cheer it on.

Many of the schools set to be closed were completely refurbished during a six year state takeover of the Detroit school board. School remodeling rarely matched library restocking. DPS has the lowest book per student ratio in the US, lower even than California’s. The massive remodeling plan rewarded cronies with no-bid contracts, but did nothing to halt the ruin of the educational system and left behind, at least, a 35 million dollar budget deficit—a figure hard to quantify as Coleman III refuses to release an analysis of the school budget.

The new leadership of the DFT enters office with plenty of promise. If Cantrell, Johnson, Ambrose, and their allies are able to envision a form of education that is rooted in close ties with parents and kids, that is able to win open budgets and honest reports from both the union and the administration, that attacks the nepotism and secrecy that has poisoned DPS for decades, and a kind of unionism that grasps that people form unions because workers and their bosses have only contradiction in common, then perhaps they will escape the “meet the new boss,” hex that has plagued union reformers.

This could be accomplished by a massive school worker stand-down, say a period of two weeks in which a trained education work force could walk door to door in neighborhoods, reconciling their own goals and desires with what they would learn are the needs of parents and kids. That this is unlikely to happen only underscores the problem of mobilizing masses of people in the midst of a true crisis (from the promise of perpetual war to the destruction of reason and hope by the abandonment of Detroit education), a population that cannot seem to recognize, for example, that what happens in Detroit only precedes what will happen elsewhere, or a population convinced that what they do does not matter. It will take courageous leadership willing to imagine and take risky action to break this national spell. But no one is better located than teachers to take up the task.

Rouge Forum Wakes NCSS

Take out the members and friends of the Rouge Forum and one has to wonder what, if anything at all, would happen at the annual December meetings of the National Council for the Social Studies and its faculty wing, the College and University Faculty Association (CUFA). NCSS proclaims itself as the guardian of “teaching citizens in a democracy.”

The field, if it is one at all, encompasses what might be a fascinating wide range of philosophy, history, geography, sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology,  and more, although NCSS is routinely attacked by historians as a insipid field only concerned with interactive teaching methods, absent any guiding substance. The Michigan legislature, in 1997, limited the field by banning the inclusion of philosophy (because, according to one legislator, “knowledge is received, not constructed,”) and sociology (“it implies social classes”), and psychology (“sex”), indicating the controversies that confront the discipline. And some cynics suggest that the founders of the field really just  initially gathered for an opportunity to hit on their graduate students.

In the opening session of the Washington D.C. 2006 CUFA convention, NCSS leaders took up the vapid question of every opportunist, “Is there a future for the social studies?”; each answering with a resounding, “probably,” never taking note of the desperate state of history in US schools, a field which David McCollough, president of the American Historical Association, says is being erased from public schools.  Speakers offered no analysis of current social conditions (like inequality or racism) and hence had no clear take on the drive to regiment the curricula through high stakes tests. Indeed, the notion that “No test means no job,” could have easily underpinned the performances.

In this gathering of learned professors, no one mentioned the national promise of perpetual war and the clear impact that would have on any nation’s curriculum. No one mentioned Oaxaca, nor the wreckage of urban education in the US. Instead, as the speakers wound up, the president of CUFA announced that there was unfilled time remaining, and since lots of people would have questions, the best thing to do would be to gavel the meeting to a close so people could get to the free food; which he did, without objection.

The Rouge Forum, led by Wayne Ross of the University of British Columbia, brought to the convention a detailed resolution signed by dozens of professors, demanding a quick exit from Iraq, building on a 2005 resolution that called for an immediate withdrawal. The resolution was given to the CUFA president and the executive committee more than a week before the meeting; well within the rules.

But, at the organizational meeting days later, the CUFA president denied he had received the resolution, thus explaining why he had not brought copies for all to see, and why he had left the resolution off the agenda, despite his earlier promise to place the item under New Business. It became a problem for the CUFA boss when his entire executive board rose up to say they had received the resolution in good time, and that he had too. Under questioning from another CUFA leader, the President simply lied. The upshot of the meeting was that the motion passed, with virtually no discussion other than an impassioned plea to debate and discuss, from a Rouge Forum co-founder.

Earlier in the year, screeners for NCSS had rejected Rouge Forum proposals to make presentations around the question, “Is it possible or desirable to teach for democracy today?” on the grounds that the question “is too political,” and “Might be answered in the negative.”

Even so, the NCSS International Assembly offered Rouge Forum members (from Japan, Canada, the US, Israel, and even Brooklyn) a chance to address the question in their session. These brief comments represent the consensus of the group:
        “*Democracy and capitalism have nothing in common.
        *We need to struggle inside schools to construct reason, inside a system that is designed and structured against reason.
        *While we all agree that democracy and equality together are key goals, we disagreed on whether or not we can reason our way out of capitalism---which is directly related to how any why we do school.
        One member of our group, Steve Fleury, asked that we differentiate between reflective and critical forms of reason, referencing Hofstadter, suggesting a difference between trained intelligence and intellectualism.”

A decade of organizing within NCSS began to pay off with a lot of interest from graduate students, k12 teachers, and some professors who have seen that, without the Rouge Forum, no one in NCSS would have address the clear linkage of imperialist war, racism, nationalism, school cutbacks, and high stakes exams. Without the Rouge Forum, no one operating under the NCSS banner of democracy would have taken up the democratic challenge for debate.

Even so, more than two dozen students and teachers said they would be attending the Rouge Forum Conference, “Their Wars Left Behind,” in Detroit, March 1 to 4, 2007, with keynote speakers like Susan Ohanian, George Schmidt, Wayne Ross, Patrick Shannon, and others.