Still Waiting for Democracy: When the State Takes Over From the State

If you’re paying attention to education matters in the state of Michigan, you know that Michigan’s Governor Snyder has come out with his plan for what is to become of Detroit Public Schools.  In a nutshell, it consists of creating two school systems, one that will exist only to contain and deal with existing debt, and the other to run as a debt free portfolio system  of common enrollment that will contain what is left of traditional public schools in Detroit, and charter schools.

There are some interesting quirks in this plan.  Most interesting to me is that this plan implicitly recognizes that the previous state takeover of DPS was a failure.  Governor Snyder’s response to this failure is this plan, which essentially is a state takeover of a failed state takeover.  ( Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity?)

As Detroit Data and Democracy points out, the consequences of the state takeover, originally in 1999, from the fairly elected DPS board of education have not been positive:

“…by 2002, the district was well into a cycle of decline from which it has not recovered:

  • A positive general fund balance turned negative, inducing austerity measures that impacted programming.
  • Cuts interrupted the academic progress the district had been making relative to the rest of the state.
  • With worsening academics, parents began to leave the district for charters and suburban schools.
  • The resulting enrollment decline led to a worsening financial position for the district, prompting further cuts.
  • Further cuts produced a further decline in academics, which led to more enrollment loss.”

Even the controversial Detroit Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has made It clear that the state of Michigan is responsible for current DPS debt.

“John Rakolta, chief executive of Walbridge and another co-chair of the coalition, said Detroit Public Schools operated with a surplus in 1999, before the state took over the district. Its operational deficit is now $170 million and it has about $2.1 billion in accumulated debt, according to the report.

Rakolta placed the cause of this operation deficit at the feet of state government and state policies, saying it has been accumulated under the state’s watch.” (Emphasis added)

By all metrics, the quality of Detroit Public Schools has worsened under the care of the state of Michigan.  And yet, as an explanation of the historical context given as the rationale for continuing state control (from a FAQ released by the sate), Snyder (or his communication people) says: “First, the state initially took control of Detroit Public Schools under Gov. Engler.  After a time they were returned to the local school board for operation. Unfortunately the state was forced to step in and take over again under Gov. Granholm.” The word “forced” here certainly reveals a position, as if the state was a victim of external circumstances, even when the circumstances were self-created.  History does, in fact, matter. (Rule of thumb; historicize everything.)  The logic would dictate that now, using the same wording and assumptions,  the state, unfortunately, is “forced” to step in and take over from the state.

I don’t see such honesty anywhere in Governor Snyder’s recommendation.

Democracy, in this situation, is, at best, obtuse.  Points to consider:

1.  The democratically elected DPS board currently in exile is given a role- to run, along with the current Emergency Financial Manager, (don’t ask me how this might actually work) the debt ridden portion of the district.  Worse than its previous role as an appendage to democracy, it is now relegated to a new role as the large colon of democracy, the processing function of all of the feces that is left over. Have fun with that.

2. The school board that actually gets to do the role designed for traditional school boards will be appointed, four of the members will be Gov. Snyder appointees, and three will be Mayor Mike Duggan appointees.  After a period of seven years, these state appointed school board members will be gradually replaced by a properly elected school board.

Seven more years of waiting for democracy.

The implied narrative of the whole plan continues to be that the existing context of race driven poverty is completely irrelevant, and that the mostly black people of Detroit are not worthy of democracy.

In a curious article endorsing Snyder’s plan, the Detroit Free Press wrote a very telling paragraph,

“We hoped Snyder would honor Detroiters’ right to self-govern, recognizing the importance of an elected board. But the realities of Lansing, and the need to invest state funds in the district, mean that all-local control would be politically unpalatable to the outstate lawmakers’ whose support will be required to move this plan forward. This is a compromise that, at first glance, we can live with.”

Did you get that? Detroiter’s right to self-govern is “politically unpalatable.” A compromise the Free Press suggests we live with.

Wow.

Democracy has become politically unpalatable for some people in America.

Today.

Scary times.

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3 responses to “Still Waiting for Democracy: When the State Takes Over From the State

  1. the link back to an earlier post did not tell much about the portfolio system so I looked for more information (fyi not something you can or should expect most reader to do). http://nepc.colorado.edu/newsletter/2013/10/review-portfolio-districts (with links to review and presentations)

  2. “a state takeover of a failed state takeover”

    This sounds like something we might hear on Saturday Night Live—so absurd it could only be a joke, but in today’s political climate, it is tragic and frightening that an elected governor is allowed to do this out in the open without a legal challenge from anyone.

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