Tag Archives: DPS

The Price of Speaking for the Hidden

You may have heard that the state of Michigan is paying for the pursuit of a lawsuit by the Detroit Public School District against two of its teachers. And you may wonder, just what terrible thing did the teachers do that justifies the state’s payment of $320,000 in legal fees against them?

They are accused of promoting teacher sick outs.

And why would they do such a thing?

Because they cared for kids.

Such is the price these days of caring for kids.

You see, the sickouts brought attention to the fact that teaching and learning conditions in may Detroit schools were horrendous. As reported in CNN, “Black mold grows in the classrooms of Spain Elementary-Middle School.

Rats and roaches run through the halls of Moses Field School and pieces of ceiling have fallen on the heads of students at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy.

At Thirkell Elementary-Middle School, eighth-graders are housed in the gym and pulled to classrooms for core subjects an hour or so a day due to a shortage of teachers.”
Spain Elementary.jpg

Though there had been a pattern of teacher and parent complaints, nothing was done about these issues until Detroit teachers finally took the action of walking out. This direct wide action generated the publicity needed to draw attention to the fact that we must not forget those children we are leaving behind.

The teachers have been victimized for courageously and persistently teaching under impossible conditions, and now, as result of speaking truth to power, they are having the power that the state can bring to bear on them as a mean of controlling, quieting, and terrorizing.

This is the same state has taken no responsibility for its emergency management of the Detroit Public Schools district that the EM has brought to the brink of bankruptcy.

The New York Times reports, “In Detroit, the schools are on the brink of insolvency after a series of emergency managers dating to 2009 repeatedly failed to grapple with its financial troubles, while also falling short on maintaining school buildings and addressing academic deficiencies. “

So the state falls short on maintenance of buildings, has elementary classrooms full of 45 students, runs out of money to pay teachers, and then spends more money to sue said teachers for making all of this visible?

Understanding requires that we remember who it is happening to. It is those who have been most marginalized- in this case, specifically, the poor and black students of Detroit. Those who are easiest to forget. Those who remain most hidden.

And the message of the lawsuit is that there will be price to pay for those who refuse to allow the lives of the marginalized to remain hidden.

In his incredible book, Endgame, Derrick Jensen shares a tenant of civilization that certainly applies here:

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often articulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

Sounds all too familiar.

Photo from TruthRevolt.org

Democracy is For Some People

” None of us is free until all of us are free.”  Martin Luther King

Let me start by being very clear.

I am a patriot. I am a believer in the stated ideological foundations of the United States of America.

I am a believer, for instance, in the ideal of democracy.

NOUN
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives:
“capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world”

synonyms: representative government · elective governmentPowered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press\

Yes, good old-fashioned democracy. The governing by the whole population “typically through elected representatives.”

And when I, as an idealistic citizen of the United States of America, see situations that undermine democracy I get a wee bit upset.

With this context in mind, let me bring you up to date on the establishment and recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

First of all, let’s go back to the ideal of democracy and the fact that this coalition is making recommendations to the Governor of the State of Michigan, Rick Snyder.  Consider:

*  That the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education, in exile since the imposition of a governor appointed (i.e., not democratically elected) emergency financial manager, did not have a say in the recommendations.

*  That it is clear who did have a say- the members of the  Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

With all due respect, how were they picked?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Everywhere I search, news articles say this coalition was “created” or mysteriously “formed.”

Duh. We know the coalition was created, and that, as a result of this creation, it also was formed. So much for investigative journalism.

Who created it?  The evidence suggests that it came from the Skillman Foundation.  It’s important to note that a foundation has co-opted, intentionally or not, the task of what was formerly given to democratically elected governmental agencies. A foundation has somehow taken, been given, or had this task land its lap.

To me, as a believer in the democratic principles supposedly inherent in these United States, that is a problem.

The coalition has 5 co-chairs, and for the sake of my framing, as an example, I would like to focus on one of them, John Rakolta.  Now, I don’t pretend to know John, his perspective or his intentions.  In fact, I think it’s important to note that, given all of the evidence since his involvement with the coalition, it seems that he has been open-minded and fair.  (See, for instance, his pointing out that the state is responsible for much of DPS’s debt accumulated while under the control of emergency management.) My gripe is not with John Rakolta, but with the usurpation of democracy that has placed John Rakolta as co-chair deciding the fate of public schooling in Detroit.

Rakolta is the white, very rich CEO of Walbridge Construction, a company that has been involved in a number of construction projects for the very poor, over 80% black Detroit Public Schools.  On the surface, it seems that this might be a conflict of interest.  On another level, the question comes to me, how does the CEO of a construction company (or anyone else for that matter) become a co-chair of this coalition? Who elected him?  Is this how a democracy is supposed to function?  According to the web-site of the Skillman foundation, the coalition is made up of, “…independent, diverse cross-section of Detroit leaders who came together to move swiftly to make recommendations for changes that will improve the city’s education system.” Who determined what a “Detroit leader” is? Who didn’t? Why is the decision-making process that has historically been made by elected school board members given over to unelected “Detroit leaders” as determined by a foundation?

DemocracyinAction

Again, I have no perspective on the intentions of Rakolta or anyone else involved with this project.  My question simply is, who put them in charge, and why do their recommendations trump the recommendations of others in a functioning democracy? Why do these chosen but unelected officials have more say than the fairly elected representatives of the citizens and parents in Detroit?

In trying to get at some answers it may get a bit complicated, so hang with me.

Let’s start by conducting a thought experiment.

Imagine that your local community (or use Grosse Pointe, or Birmingham, or Bloomfield as potential examples) had their locally controlled, democratically elected school board replaced first by an emergency financial manager, and then by a group of self-appointed citizens. How might that be accepted?

My guess? Not so well.

So why is it ok in a city that is 80% black with 40% living in poverty?

I’m stuck with the conclusion that it is ok because that city is 80% black, with 40% living in poverty.

Oh, did I play the race card? I’m sorry.

Let me be more subtle, then, and quote the all too common sentiment of Gary Naeyaert, the head of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro school choice advocacy group, as printed in the Gongwer News Source,

“Enough is enough, and it’s about time we recognized that the Detroit Public Schools are academically and financially bankrupt, and they’ve lost the privilege of educating children in Detroit,” Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, said in a statement.”  (Emphasis added)

I’m guessing, then, that democracy is a privilege afforded to some, and not to others. Coincidentally, the places where that privilege is denied is in cities that are overwhelming black and poor, with eroded infrastructures that make financial and academic issues exceedingly difficult to address.  In other words, because of the organizing principles of poverty and race, because of the increased financial and academic stresses caused by such circumstances, despite the heroic efforts of many involved in working in such stressed conditions (to be fair, many of whom served as members of the Skillman coalition), all driven by the false narrative of “failing schools,” “they” deserve to have the “privilege” of democracy removed. It seems “they” haven’t earned it in these United States. Such an attitude might be likened to colonialism- that old idea that, since “they” obviously can’t make their own decisions, “we” need to “help them.”

Now many people will say that my analysis simply isn’t realistic. That, in the real world, such a lens simply isn’t politically practical. That it simply isn’t realistic to expect people to think this way.  Many people will say, what’s the beef?  Look at the results- the coalition actually made three huge, and, to me, surprise recommendations- to have the state of Michigan assume much of DPS’s debt, to dissolve the controversial EAA, and to return power back to the DPS board of education (kind of).

My problem, again, starts with the undemocratic nature of this process itself.  It is a process that wouldn’t be allowed, at this time at least, in other communities.

Let’s be honest. Democracy is for some people.

And it also is a process that concluded with a recommendation that retains control in an entity that is outside the auspices of democracy.  It is returning some power back to the board, but, in spite of the rhetoric, much of the actual and deciding power is recommended to stay with another newly created coalition, essentially creating a portfolio system.

“Regarding the coordination and oversight across the education sectors

  • The State establish a new, lean board/legislative body, the Detroit Education Commission, to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions for all Detroit schoolchildren, with members appointed by the Mayor. The DEC will set and hold all schools to the same performance standard.”

In other words, the DPS school board will work under the umbrella and auspices of the Detroit Education Commission. So yes, democracy is reinstated, at least, you know, kind of. Right?

In a very real, very practical way, democracy is only for some people.

Honestly, I have no illusions that this will go away.  I have no illusions that Governor Snyder will reinstate democracy in Detroit.

But I do think we should all be asking ourselves an important question:

Is this what we should accept in these United States?

The Shock Doctrine- Alive and Well in Michigan

Symptomatic of what is occurring in education across the nation, Detroit Public Schools are deep in debt.

Detroit, though, is somewhat unique in that they have in place an autocratic and unilateral leader appointed by the Governor of Michigan.  They have an Emergency Manager, a person appointed at the governor’s behest to alleviate a financial situation that has been deemed by such governor to be an “emergency.”

DPS Financial HistoryIn Detroit Public Schools, this has led to the marginalization of a perfectly capable and democratically elected school board.  It has promoted the market fundamentalists’ premier value of economic efficiency over democracy, and it has done so at the expense of the economic health of the district, the academics of the students affected, and the community’s agency as expressed via the accountability of a democratically elected school board. It is no small thing to again point out the irony of the fact that Emergency Management has been installed at the expense of  the district’s financial viability.  (For more on this sordid history, please read Bill Wylie-Kellerman’s excellent account.)

So what is the governor going to do now with this mess he has exacerbated? According to The Detroit News, “Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration is exploring ways to link a change in governance of public education in Detroit with ‘financial relief’ for the debt-ridden and cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools.

Hmm..little mention of here of the structural conditions that led to such a situation.

No mention of the damning, incomplete, and false narrative of “failing schools.”

Although there are some hints if you read between the lines.

Since DPS is managed by its fourth emergency manager in six years, the issue of giving the district some financial breathing room looms large as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren tries to craft a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.

See, it seems that there is a glimmer of understanding that an Emergency Manager- the fourth in six years- has simply not worked.  The solution? “…a new school reform plan for Snyder to pursue in the Legislature.”

Again, if you read between the lines you will note who is not able to pursue anything in the legislature -the people of Detroit whose children are affected. You see, their voices have been silenced.

More hints of what might be to come?

Snyder wants the plan before spring so he can pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year, Walsh said.

Walsh, a Livonia Republican, was term-limited from the House last year and joined Snyder’s staff in January. He since has worked closely on Detroit and urban education reform issues with Paul Pastorek, a former Louisiana schools chief credited with turning around the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Last summer, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which has invested heavily in the EAA schools, sent Pastorek to Michigan to assist Snyder’s office in studying education reform in Detroit.

The 36-member coalition is exploring reforms that include common enrollment and the creation of a new commission that could have governance power over all DPS…

So what is this really about?  In order to learn, we need to follow the bread crumb trail ( in this particular nightmare that means “money”) to New Orleans.  The Broad Foundation, whose marketing brand reads, “Entrepreneurship for the public good in education,” a sentence whose inherent contradiction is mind-boggling, has funded Paul Pastorek as an advisor to the Michigan Governor as he looks for a system that he can use to, “ pursue potential legislative changes before the next school year.” 

As the governor wrings his hands about the debt DPS is incurring.

Sound familiar?

Let’s see- the creation of massive financial insecurity that allows for radical structural changes which will then allow for corporate profit at the expense of democracy and local communities? Yes, the Shock Doctrine!

To those familiar with the history of public schooling in New Orleans it will sound all too familiar.  (Thank you Paul Pastorek.)

And for those not familiar, please rapidly learn about the NOLA history, as it’s coming to a school near you.

As a public service I offer the video below.  (From New Orleans Education Equity.)

And as a succinct encouragement to view, I offer this quote from the video:

A lot of money has come into New Orleans to open up new schools. That actually incentivizes school failure. The more schools fail, the more money certain organizations get to open new schools….closing schools simply gets the money changing hands again.” 

It’s easy to predict that a lot more money will be soon be changing hands again in Michigan.

Please watch.

No More Surprises

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder is about to make an announcement that will move him to the prominent fore in the education reform movement not only statewide, but nationally as well.  Snyder has done much already to shape the education conversation in Michigan and nationally (more on that later) and, as the former CEO of a company on the forefront of casino capitalism, he clearly has the background to weigh heavily in this particular discussion.

Snyder will most likely announce some version of “portfolio districts” as the way forward.  The name “portfolio” is another misappropriated title taken from the business world.  A “business portfolio” is a collection of products and services offered by a company.  As applied to the education field, a district using this model would, as described by Kenneth Saltman,  “…build portfolios of schools that encompass a variety of educational approaches offered by different vendors…”

Saltman has written an important report on the portfolio model, Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of “Portfolio Districts”  (http://greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Saltman_PortfolioDistricts.pdf.)  In this brief, Saltman outlines four characteristics of portfolio districts:  “The portfolio district approach merges four strategies: 1) decentralization; 2) charter school expansion; 3) reconstituting/closing “failing” schools; and 4) test-based accountability.”

Elements of a portfolio districtFor those who are familiar with the current education reform movement, there are no surprises here.  And as a pro business market fundamentalist, it is predictable that Governor Snyder would promote a portfolio model.

At the same time, it is crucial to recognize the history that Snyder has created in order to fertilize the ground for this move.

Skunk Works and the Disconnecting Schools from Local Community

In the Spring of 2013, it was revealed that Snyder had put together a secret group in order to design a plan that  “lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools—something prohibited by the state Constitution.”   This group was headed by Richard McLellan, a pro-voucher, pro school choice advocate.  The intention of this group was to create a model that dismantled local districts in favor of a system that would allow students the choice to take their state funding to any school in the state, including virtual schools.  This was what Snyder called the “anytime, anywhere, any pace” model, a techno utopian dream, and one that, as I have written before, hugely misunderstands the  importance of the teacher.

And a crucial element in this plan was the disconnection of schools from the democratic accountability of local communities.  Essentially, this model imagines humans as abstracted from the relationships and accountability that local community provides.  This cannot be overstated.

In his important book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block writes, “The essential work is to create social fabric, both for its own sake and to enable chosen accountability among citizens.  When citizens care for each other, they become accountable to each other.  Care and accountability create a healthy community.” It is important to understand that the portfolio model is based on a way of imagining humans as alienated from the relationships, context, and accountability that can only be provided by a community where people are known.  As traditional conservatism understands, local community is significant, thus the need to “conserve” community and the values it represents. Traditional conservatives understand that as part of the fabric of their communities, local school districts actually matter in people’s lives.  Snyder and other current Republicans are too often misnamed as conservatives when they in fact, like many current members of the Democrat party, are representatives of neoliberal market fundamentalism, which views everything from the one-dimensional value of money, and as a result, rips apart the social fabric.

When the Skunk Works group was outed, it was disassembled, reconstituted under a different name, and put under the control of the state superintendent. Little of this particular group has been heard from since, though iterations of its plan continue with its DNA clearly seen in the “district portfolio” plan.  (For more on  the history of Skunk Works, see Things Are Getting Stinky.)

The EAA and the Rise of Charters

I and others have written extensively about Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority.  (See herehere and here.) For the sake of this article, simply note that the EAA has taken schools out of the Detroit Public School system and put them into a “state-wide” district of the lowest performing 5%.  For a variety of reasons, those schools are all Detroit schools.  (See Mary Mason and David Arsen’s important report on the establishment of the EAA. It is linked at the bottom of this piece.)  It then instituted the techno utopian dream of a computer driven, “personalized” curriculum that sees little need for qualified teachers and has proved a colossal failure.  Again, the EAA’s elements of misunderstanding the role of the teacher, of a techno utopian vision, and the underestimation of the importance of community  are all replicated in the portfolio model.

While the EAA was on the rise, so were for profit charters in the state of Michigan.  Legislation was passed that allowed for the expansion of charters in the state.  Eighty percent these charters are now run for profit and Michigan has the dubious honor of leading the nation in the number of for profit charters.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press has done an important expose on the effectiveness of Michigan’s charters.  (Read with some wariness.)

Funding and Emergency Management

Throughout his term as governor, Snyder has pushed for broader establishment of Emergency Management, which assumes that local democratically elected institutions are fundamentally unable to handle their finances.  It then allows an Emergency Manager to be appointed, and gives this manager autocratic control over virtually every aspect of these formerly democratic institutions.  The laws that allow for this were developed and promulgated by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, and in Michigan, by the right-wing think tank , The Mackinac Center for Public Policy. (Read more here.)

In his current history of Detroit Public Schools, Bill Wylie-Kellerman writes,

“Though Public Act 436, which allegedly authorizes emergency management, allows that elected bodies taken over and supplanted may vote after 18 months to put out an EM, the courts have ruled that this means the Governor simply has to install a new and different EM. Emergency Management is a permanent feature of black cities in Michigan.

The elected and unpaid school board, though constantly tarred in the media with corruption or incompetence or simply ignored, has continued to function ‘in exile’ as a body conscientiously accountable to parents, students, and citizens, consistently resisting takeover. (Would that our city council had an ounce of such vision or fiber!) Believe it or not, the State Attorney General sued the district representatives on the board for being elected. Since they were duly seated and sworn in, the maneuver failed. Now a foundation-funded and nonprofit-orchestrated campaign seeks oust them altogether for a structure of ‘mayoral control’…Emergency management has been the blunt instrument of privatization.”

At the same time that Emergency Management has been on the rise, the financial conditions necessary for instituting it have also been on the rise.  Mere coincidence? Hmm…

Since taking over as governor, Snyder has slashed business taxes to the ‘tune of 1.6 billion dollars a year…leaving a huge hole in the School Aid Fund.”

Let me quote more from Chris Savage, at Eclectablog:

“Gov. Snyder also took the unprecedented step of diverting a portion of the School Aid Fund to pay partially offset huge cuts he had made to higher education which he claims to value so much. Before Rick Snyder came into office, this had never happened before. How much of a hit did the School Aid Fund take from this diversion of money to higher ed?

$400,000,000 a year.

So, let’s do the math here:

   $600,000,000.00
+ $400,000,000.00 
 $1,000,000,000.00  

Yup, that’s a billion dollars, kids. Actually it’s a bit more because the hit the Student Aid Fund took from the business tax cut is MORE than $600,000,000.”

That’s a lot of money that schools aren’t getting.

And the result?

Fifty seven school districts in the state of Michigan are now operating under a deficit.

Surprised?

To put it another way, fifty-seven school districts are now ripe for being taken over by emergency management.

Or, remembering Wylie-Kellerman’s frame, fifty-seven school districts are now ripe for privatization.

Follow the logic.

Connect the dots.

Next?

So this is the current context for Snyder’s upcoming announcement.  This is the groundwork that has been laid, some transparently, some not so much.

But with this in mind, it’s at least clear that a pattern has been established so there should be no more surprises.

Be sure to read Mary L. Mason and David Arsen’s report, Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority and the Future of Public Education in Detroit: The Challenge of Aligning Policy Design and Policy Goals: http://www.greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Saltman_PortfolioDistricts.pdf