The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Detroit Public Schools:
Attacking Teachers AND Students

Sep 14, 2009

The following is taken from a presentation at a Spark public meeting held in Detroit on September 13:

This past week, as the school year began, the schools in Detroit were full of chaos. Many students, parents AND teachers had no idea where they were supposed to go – what school they were assigned to – on Day One, let alone how they were going to get there.

This chaos was the work of Robert Bobb, the “emergency financial manager” appointed by Michigan Governor Granholm to head the Detroit Public Schools.

Early this summer, Bobb closed 29 schools, sending those students to 36 other schools. In addition, he completely reorganized or “reconstituted” thirty-five more schools in the district. Principals were removed and replaced, and 1000 teachers were made to reapply for their jobs. They would either stay in their old school or be held in limbo waiting for another assignment. (This was a consequence of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, which has been continued under Barack Obama under a new name, “Race to the Top.”) All that happens with this, of course, is a great big merry-go-round: some teachers stay in their reconstituted schools, and others move to reconstituted schools. Nothing changes except the chaos level.

All in all, two-thirds of the district’s 84,000 students were affected by these moves.

Then, in August, Bobb came out with his demands to the teachers for their next contract. These included attacks on teachers’ wages, including a 10% across the board wage cut and no step increases for the duration of the contract, and a demand that the contract last 5 years.

In addition, there are all sorts of proposals that mean a real attack on students’ education, such as:

Elimination of the sick bank cash-out and longevity bonus for teachers. Teachers often keep accumulating their sick bank days from year to year because they don’t have anything that covers them for a serious problem that might keep them out for a long time. Very often, long-term teachers reach retirement with a big bank of accumulated days. Right now, they can cash those days out when they retire and get paid for them.

Bobb wants to cut that cash-out – which will mean that experienced teachers approaching retirement will TAKE all those days, disappearing from the classroom a semester or a year early. Those classes will be left with a series of substitutes instead of any real teacher during that time.

In addition, Bobb proposes a series of technical changes that mean teachers could effectively be left with no prep time during the school day. This means teachers will come to class unprepared, unless they’re just going through the motions from what they’ve done in previous years. Again, students are the ones who suffer, in either case.

And the REAL kicker – technical changes that effectively put NO limit on class size. If that were to pass, there would effectively be NO limit to classroom size: 40, 50, 100. And it could mean further teacher layoffs.

After several large demonstrations of teachers, parents, students and other supporters, Bobb agreed to extend the contract 60 days, until October 31. He did not want to risk a strike until after the school year started.

A Way to Fuel Charter Schools

Bobb’s cuts, and his further cut proposals, can ONLY result in worse conditions in the schools and worse results for the students. And it can only encourage an even greater exodus into neighboring school districts and into charter schools.

Charter schools are privately run, but they get their money from the public school system; in other words, they drain it from the public schools. BUT they don’t have to meet any of the standards that the public schools do, including standards on class size, or even the size of the classroom. They aren’t held to the same test standards by “No Child Left Behind.” They don’t have to hire qualified teachers; they can hire young people right out of school, with or without their teaching certificates, and pay these teachers much less for many more hours of work (often 7:00 AM -5:00 PM, every school day.) And they usually spend much less money on their students, so that much more of it goes into the pockets of those running the schools. Sometimes these are for-profit outfits openly running the schools to MAKE money; sometimes they are people who have a religious agenda and use the money they skim to create a whole network of charter schools pushing that agenda.

We always see a couple examples of a charter school here or there where the students do very well. These are schools that get loads of money pumped into them so that they can SERVE as the examples. They might get all the press, and give the impression that charter schools are doing great things. But they are not representative of the vast majority of charter schools. Several Department of Education studies have shown that charter schools produce WORSE results than comparable neighborhood schools. Of course, these studies get much less publicity.

Robert Bobb has openly declared his support of charter schools, and he seems to be doing what he can to transform the DPS into a district of charter schools. He already paid 20 million dollars to several charter school companies to “consult” in running 17 schools. This includes Edison Learning, Inc., which was paid to run the schools in the city of Inkster, a Detroit suburb, for five years. Edison left them no better than they were at the beginning – but drained them of a lot of money. And Edison was given twenty Philadelphia schools, only to have those schools perform worse than before Edison took over!

Students suffer when private companies are allowed to make a profit from public funds – instead of seeing that money go directly to their education. And they suffer as well when schools are closed or completely reorganized, throwing chaos into their educational lives, or when classes are so stuffed that teachers can’t possibly give individual attention and instruction.

The ONLY thing that makes sense to save DPS – and ALL poorer and working class schools – is to provide them much more money and resources. ALL schools should get the same money that the wealthiest districts get. But they don’t; not even close.

Funding: Attack on Working-Class Schools

Proposal A, passed in Michigan in 1994, lowered property taxes across the state and raised the state sales tax. It was a way to let corporations and wealthy individuals off the hook, since they could then pay much lower taxes on expensive properties; and it put a much bigger share of tax payments on the working class, since working people pay a much higherpercentage of their income in sales tax than wealthy people do.

In order to get people to go along with this, the state said that it would equalize school funding across the state. Before that, each individual district was funded mostly through local property taxes. This meant that richer areas, with more valuable properties, always had more money for their schools than poorer ones – even when districts like Detroit regularly tax themselves at a much higher rate to pay for their schools than rich districts do.

Now workers are paying a much higherpercentage of their incomes to this fund through sales taxes. But they’re getting a lot less out of it. Per-pupil spending is set by law at different amounts for different school districts. Districts like Detroit, Inkster, River Rouge and other working-class districts are paid just over $7,000 per pupil. The districts in the wealthy suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield are paid over $12,000 BY THE STATE for each pupil!

So, in effect, a parent in Detroit is paying more to educate the children in wealthy Birmingham than they do to educate their OWN children!

And on top of it, districts are still free to tax themselves further if they want to – and if they can. So rather than equalizing school funding, Proposal A has added one unequal funding on top of another unequal funding – and made this inequality official policy.

We’ve always heard, “You can’t just throw money at the problem,” and that’s true – you can’t JUST do that. But it’s a good place to start! The wealthier districts know this – it’s why they’ve refused to redistribute the funding or cut their own funding, even using OUR money to pay for THEIR kids’ education! If they don’t think money helps, let THEM educate their kids on $7,000 per pupil per year, and we’ll ‘make do’ with $12,000!

Much More Is Possible

If all these schools are to be improved, it takes MORE money poured into them, not less! State-wide and nationwide, money should be POURED into the poorer districts, to pay for all the improvements that are needed – even if it means taking money from the richer districts. Equalize the results, through unequal funding in the OTHER direction, for a change.

Imagine what that could mean for our society, and for the world, if EVERY child could have the benefit of a top-notch education: small class size, for individual attention. State-of-the-art buildings, including fully-outfitted science labs and computer labs, theater, pools, not to mention bathrooms that WORK and ceilings that don’t leak! Full sets of RECENT textbooks for all students, not to mention all sorts of supplementary materials. If EVERY child were given the opportunity to truly engage their natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge and understanding, if every child were given a truly thorough scientific understanding of the world, if every child were allowed the chance to engage their creativity – think of how fast society would progress: all the things we could do, all the advances we could see!

That will take a huge fight, because it means the complete reorganization of the resources of this society. The current rulers of this society are perfectly content with the way things are now. Despite what we always hear, they have no use for a well-educated population. They only need a small handful to direct THEIR system; the proof is all those coming out of the universities and taking jobs at places like McDonald’s. And they still need LOTS of workers who won’t make much money at all. A fully well-educated population would be a waste, as far as they’re concerned.

In fact, they seem to be deciding that ANY spending on the education of workers’ children is too much. They’d rather gut the school systems, suck funds for profit, and leave workers’ kids to rot. After all, with the high rate of unemployment, they’ve just accepted that a largepercentage of working-class kids will have no jobs and no futures at all.

If working-class kids are to have any future, the working class will have to impose it on the ruling class through major fights.