The Struggle for Hope in Detroit
(printed in Substance (Chicago) October 2000)

by Rich Gibson

San Diego State University, College of Education

Detroit is third world. Ever a race-bordered color-coded one-trade town; the auto trade fled in the 1970's. Color barriers remained harsh. The city evaporated. Detroit's economic and social collapse goes far beyond anything in a comparable city. More than half the population, over one million people, left town. There is not a single sizeable retail store. Cultural institutions, like libraries, went to rot. Grocery stores are rare. Vacant lots, boarded buildings, bombed streets, city-wide electrical outages, winter snow shutdowns, the worst airport, an earned reputation as Murder City, chop-shop central, typify the material aspects of the collapse. Generations of unemployment on one hand, intensified police surveillance, brutality, and corruption, on the other, sum up the human side. At the heart of the collapse is racism, and all the economic and social penalties that are attached to it-- in the most severe forms. Racism made Detroit the most segregated of cities, and brittle. All that is left of substance is the school system

Some elites now want to reclaim at least parts of Detroit. They want their parts right now. Eager to make quick fame and fortunes, they pose as school reformers, downtown rehabilitators, riverfront reclaimers. Like their predecessors, they wind up being takers, not contributors.

There is no fast way out for the forty year collapse that now defines Detroit. Spectacles like three new downtown casinos and sport venues cannot form the basis of city revitalization. The industrial working class and its organizations, which led the nation in civilizing public life in the 20th century, is no longer positioned to make progressive social change. In Detroit, the sole way out is school reform, the crux of winning young working people with kids back to the city. Schools are now the centripetal point of social life in Detroit. School reform, hope, is only possible in tandem with economic and social reform. It takes time, commitment, and sacrifice-and loving solidarity.

If school and economic reform work reciprocally, it is clear nevertheless that in Detroit school reform will have to take the lead. There is no hint of any economic reform that will benefit most city citizens. School reform from the top is barred now by public policies rooted in arrogance, greed, and fear, policies which seek only profit and social control: the failed (and corrupt) summer school repair program and curricula test-mania for example. Since the schools are the lynchpin of any potential recovery, it follows that heavy-handed school policies ruin hope. 

Many of the schools are surely a horror; understaffed, ineptly led, lacking supplies, functioning in poisoned old broken buildings. Most importantly, the schools replicate the segregation that causes their ruin. Kids are triply segregated, by class within race, by ability or disability. Educators meet a population acutely wounded by an unparalleled series of attacks over the last three decades: mass unemployment, ruined housing, hopelessness, contemptuous school leadership, unscrupulous political officials and police enforcement-the latter deadly.

Detroit citizens know they were stripped of their voting rights by the recent school board takeover which replaced a local gang of bunglers with seven presumptuous and benevolent suburbanites, each with their own selfishness in full bloom. Desperation for reform offered the takeover board months of good will which they squandered by duplicating the ineptness and dishonesty of the old board. They failed at every turn: a bogus summer construction program halted because of press exposures of corruption, failed teacher hiring efforts, board meetings held in secret or behind police riot squads. 20,000 students, 12% of the district, left Detroit schools last year. That will cost the district about $130 million in revenue in 2000, a financial hit the district cannot take. 

The new "CEO" of the Detroit public schools, Kenneth Burnley, hired with a $1/4 million yearly salary, made his project quite clear in his introductory speech at the first board meeting, "One of my key goals it to demonstrate that the real consumers of our schools are not students, but small-factory owners like Ms Bravo here, our co-board member, who needs workers to show up on time and consistently in her plant on the southwest side." 

Burnley plans to intensify standardized high-stakes testing in the schools, using that as a measure to reconstitute some schools, that is, to layoff their teachers and shuffle the kids elsewhere. The CEO, who earned his reputation by selling the Colorado Springs school system to Coca Cola, plans to expand the corporate vision in Detroit. He is investigating giving the Edison corporation about 45 schools, more than one in six in the system. In addition, he has hired more than 25 area managers to keep an eye on local test scores. 

Now the schools face another assault: the voucher movement which would place education in the hands of irrational religious profiteers. Vouchers appeal to voters due to the apparent failure of the schools to deliver-in the midst of a total social debacle. Vouchers charm ministers because students can mean steady income. To pass vouchers in Detroit would mean that no major employer could lure its workers to live in the city. 

Research is clear about school reform. Changing schools requires addressing the surrounding society. School reform requires solidarity between leaders and rank and file school workers, community people, parents, and kids. School reform requires deep democracy, mass involvement. Involvement must most commonly be linked to economic revitalization, but in some instances education has stripped ahead of attacks on poverty, gone before economics, as in the Mississippi Freedom Schools. Precisely the opposite, in every area, is afoot now. The takeover school board is occupied by avaricious individuals who know little about either Detroit or education, and who have no vision of social change.

What could be done is not being done, and the possibilities are daily being undone. What to do and who can do it? Hope cannot be manufactured from the mists, it rises out of a solid grasp of current conditions. There is no reason to believe that corporate wealth wants to reform schools in order to raise wages; rather the powerful want Detroit back, but they want the property without the problems of the citizenry. The only people who have a stake in real school and social reform are parents, local citizens, students, and teachers. Teachers and other school workers are best positioned to take initial leadership in real reform, the stable force in the mix.

The teachers cannot rely on their union, the DFT, to forment change. The union has proven itself to be part of the problem, the leaders entrenched and corrupt, supporting racist testing and segregation, but more importantly, the union structure (excluding parents, students, and community activists-addressing only the narrow needs of the workforce at the expense of the community) can only retard serious change. 

Detroit educators must produce a new organization of rank and file school workers, parents, students and community people. This organization must have a clear vision: to revitalize the city from the bottom up, through democratic change for a more equitable society. This group will need to address the relationship of school problems and community problems, recognizing that one is directly tied to the other. That means, on the one hand, community organizing to make demands on local elites for the simple necessities of school: in the words of last year's strike, "Books, Supplies, Lower Class Size." 

The group will need to be wisely action-oriented to enforce these vital demands, marching on casinos (a vulnerable weak link for elites) for example. The group will need to be anti-racist, integrated, listening to and taking leadership, more often than not, from the community. On the other hand, the group will need to address, opposing the moronic drive for more and more testing and standardization in school, what it is to teach well in the midst of a socio-economic crisis. Such an organization could draw mission-oriented educators from around the country, and demand (and win) free local housing for them as incentive. When it must, this group will need to recognize that some of the best learning in the U.S. took place in the Freedom Schools of the south, during the civil rights movement, when formal schools were closed. The Rouge Forum and the Whole Schooling Consortium, and Detroit Summer on the east side, fledgling groups in the city, can serve as partial local models, starting points. 

This is the only way real school and social reform will happen in Detroit. The current top-down measures will invariably fail the needs of the vast majority of citizens. Detroiters, who have a long history of taking leadership in the battles that enlightened the nation, can win good schools, democratically from the bottom up, and out of that can deepen the struggle for a more egalitarian and inclusive society. 

Rich Gibson lived and worked in Detroit for most of his adult life, teaching at Wayne State for the last six years. He moved to San Diego State in September 2000. 

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