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“Stop Oppressing Us”: Detroit Teachers Speak

Detroit teachers are protesting what they say is an unaccountable school system that has harmed students’ educations.

A new investigation by the US Attorney’s Office has uncovered evidence of long-lasting corruption within the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system and has charged 12 current and former Detroit principals with fabricating invoices, evading taxes and taking $1 million in bribes and kickbacks from the district’s vendors.

This newly unearthed scandal is wholly unsurprising to the teachers of Detroit, who have seen corruption and injustice dominate the city’s education system since 1999, when state-appointed emergency managers were first given the power to override Detroit’s elected school board.

“I’ve seen DPS decline. Each year it has gotten worse,” said fourth-grade teacher Yolanda Harris, who has worked in the district for 15 years. “It’s corruption.”

“The governor [is] trying to silence any opposition. It’s a scare tactic to try and prevent any further teacher action.”

Beginning in mid-January 2016, an ongoing series of teacher sick-outs, marches and protests have brought national attention to this corruption, arguably leading to the investigation that uncovered the citywide bribery scheme, as well as to the resignation of emergency manager Darnell Earley — but, teachers say, it is too little, too late.

“We’ve already made our kids suffer and be at fault,” said Jacob Robinson, a primary school teacher. “It’s such a sad and angering situation.”

Further stoking the teachers’ anger is the fact that Earley has simply been replaced by a new state-selected “transition manager,” Steven Rhodes, who holds virtually the exact same duties and high salary ($225,000) of an emergency manager.

“[Rhodes has] got to go, now,” said Nicole Conaway, a teacher at East English Village Preparatory Academy. “He’s nothing more than the next emergency manager, and that policy has to end. We need real democracy back for the people of Detroit with an empowered, elected school board, now.”

Additionally, the teachers’ actions, while bringing much-needed attention to the dire straits of Detroit’s schools, have also unleashed an aggressive, statewide backlash.

The Detroit school district has filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Detroit Federation of Teachers and its interim president, but is still continuing to push for a preliminary injunction against Conaway and her fellow Detroit teacher, Steve Conn.

“The governor [is] trying to silence any opposition,” Conaway said. “It’s a scare tactic to try and prevent any further teacher action. We will use the trial as an opportunity to put [Gov. Rick] Snyder’s policies on trial.”

Added to the teachers’ opposition is the Michigan Legislature, led by State Sen. Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair), which is currently attempting to pass three bills aimed at penalizing the city’s educators and making such sick-outs illegal.

“We’re talking about strengthening the strike legislation and to make sure kids get the public education that they deserve,” Pavlov said in early February 2016.

But teachers say this is exactly why they are protesting: Detroit’s children are not receiving the education they deserve underneath the current state-controlled, financially starved, increasingly charterized school system.

“I look at each and every one of those kids as if they were one of my own,” said Mario Inchaustegui, a teacher at Maybury Elementary School. “We just don’t see who is advocating for [them].”

“Emergency management has not produced any measurable positive results in Detroit Public Schools.”

Sixth-grade teacher William Weir concurs. “I was crestfallen when [former emergency manager] Darnell Earley had a press conference at Martin Luther King Jr. High School and decried teachers for protesting,” Weir said. “How could you, as an African-American man, stand in a school named after a man whose civil disobedience was generated by unjust laws, and decry us for protesting for our kids and our rights? That bothered me more than what Pavlov proposed.”

“The teachers are not doing this without understanding the effect on the students,” said second-grade teacher Emily Simon. “The fact that we’re willing to do this anyway should be evidence of how extreme the issues are.”

Those issues include lack of educational materials, cuts in musical and artistic programs, health and safety hazards, 40-student classrooms, overly strict curriculums, excessive testing, the proliferation of charter schools and the emergency manager laws that loom over the entire district.

A School District Under Control

Appointed by former Michigan Gov. John Engler and armed with the power to override the city’s school board, emergency managers first came to Detroit Public Schools in 1999, when the district had a $93 million surplus. By the end of the state’s initial period of control in 2005, the surplus had vanished, and in its place sat a $31 million deficit.

“I started [in DPS] in 1994,” Inchaustegui said. “DPS had its problems then, [but] the emergency managers who were purportedly going to solve the problems — they exacerbated the problems.”

In 2009, under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the state again took control of DPS, and, since then, the system’s debt has exploded to $515 million, while the number of students in the district has shrunk by 50 percent, in part because families are leaving the city, but also because of the state-authorized spread of semiprivate, loosely regulated charter schools.

“Since the public can’t hold the emergency manager accountable, the governor must intervene and act to ensure they have a voice.”

“Emergency management has not produced any measurable positive results in DPS,” said Weir, who has been teaching in Detroit for almost 20 years. “They’ve all come in and promised test scores will go up — even though [scores] have improved, they have not gone up in the amount the emergency managers promised; class sizes have increased; teachers have lost [money] in the form of pay and benefits. Nothing that they have promised has changed, or had any positive impact at all.”

Although, as Weir says, reading and science test scores did improve under emergency management, the achievement disparity between DPS students and the rest of the state remained gaping, the debt increasingly worsened and class sizes shot up, this year reaching 45 to 50 students per teacher.

As Craig Thiel, a senior research associate at the Citizens Research Council recently told The New York Times:

We’re on our fourth emergency manager here…. They each seem to be borrowing from the same playbook: figure out a way to get through the current year, end the year without going insolvent, and then push costs onto the next year in the hopes that things will improve in some way. They’re dealing with these debts that should have been paid off years ago that have instead been put on future budgets.

Underneath emergency management, the district is also currently siphoning off 40 percent of the money allocated for Detroit’s children to pay its long overdue debts.

The CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, Gilda Jacobs, said the statewide effects of these cuts have been drastic. “We have a state that is lagging in the number of students who are reading by third grade,” she said. “If we want to have a strong, educated workforce, then we’re really going to have to … put money into the K-12 education system.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in its December 2015 report, ranked Michigan’s education cuts the 12th worst in the nation, and, in its 2011 yearly ranking, Excellent Schools Detroit found that 75 percent of the city’s schools don’t provide an adequate education.

“There’s definitely a move toward privatization [of the school system], but those moves are stronger in disadvantaged areas.”

Meanwhile, as the city’s educational institutions flounder, Governor Snyder has cut taxes for corporations by $1.7 billion (thereby foisting a greater monetary burden upon working families); limited the ability of the Treasury Department to hold corporate officers responsible for the unpaid taxes of their corporations; and allowed the district’s emergency managers to be paid six-figure salaries by the cash-deprived communities of which they are in charge.

In 2014, the elected Detroit school board voted to oust the emergency managers, but a judge ruled against their decision, and the emergency managers remained.

“We voted against the emergency managers, and then they came back out with another bill,” Harris said. “You took away our civil rights. You took away the democratic process.”

Robert A. Sedler, a distinguished professor at Wayne State University Law School, explained why Detroit’s citizens have no power to overthrow or even hold accountable their emergency managers: “The law is so broad and gives so many powers that it’s very difficult to find a violation … I don’t know how many [lawsuits] have been filed, but none have been successful.”

In a 2012 letter to Snyder, the NAACP and Michigan Forward protested these broad and unlimited powers, writing of the “failure of transparency and accountability,” and citing a “clear example of exclusion and voter disenfranchisement” when the financial review team selected for Detroit met in Lansing, about 100 miles away.

As Martin O’Neill, a teacher at Davis Aerospace Technical High School, said, “No one can tell you how they’re spending the money. There’s no oversight.”

The ACLU wrote a similar letter to Snyder in 2014, urging him to “ensure transparency and implement methods for the public to hold emergency managers accountable for their decisions.” Mark P. Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Michigan Racial Justice Project, added that, “Since the public can’t hold the emergency manager accountable, the governor must intervene and act to ensure they have a voice.”

“This is the new Jim Crow,” Conaway told Truthout. “This is stripping away the rights of Black and Latino and minority students, and attempting to create another second-class status.”

Poverty and Racism in Detroit

Detroit is the poorest major city in the United States, with 40 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, and more children living in extreme destitution than any other large US city.

Children who grow up in poverty face mental and physical health issues that wealthy children do not: hunger, crowded living conditions, affected brain development, financial worry, toxic levels of stress, higher chances of abuse and neglect.

“The privatization and charterization of schools is a failing experiment.”

Detroit is also, at 82 percent of the population, majority Black. This means that from birth, many of the city’s children are victims of the systemic poverty and oppression borne of the United States’ living legacy of racism: from the slavery, Jim Crow and “separate but equal” of the not-so-distant past, to today’s housing discrimination, redlining (denying services, either directly or by selectively raising prices, to communities of color), lower pay, institutional racism in colleges and universities, job discrimination, obstruction of voting rights, police brutality, punitive juvenile legal system, extreme incarceration, and, as found in DPS, unequal K-12 public education.

“People refuse to recognize that institutionalized racism and oppression is happening,” Robinson said. “But whether people want to accept [it] or not, the statistics are there to prove it.”

Despite these monumental challenges, the education of Detroit’s children — one of the keys toward ensuring equality and eliminating poverty — is actually less well-funded than the schooling of their wealthy counterparts (Michigan’s schools are the fourth-most regressively funded in the United States).

Along with the city’s debt, this means that Detroit’s children are receiving less than half as much funding as their peers in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a wealthy, majority white suburb north of the city.

“We do not have the funding that suburban schools have,” Weir said. “And, on top of that, [over] a third of our money is being taken to pay for the debt, which is totally unfair.”

According to the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Michigan is one of the worst states nationwide for guaranteeing Black children, who disproportionately grow up in urban areas like Detroit, an equal, effective education.

Additionally, teachers say, the proliferation of charter schools has detrimentally targeted their low-income, at-risk students.

“There’s definitely a move toward privatization [of the school system], but those moves are stronger in disadvantaged areas,” Inchaustegui said. “They’re not opening charter schools over in Northville and Novi.”

The Charterization of Detroit

In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 277, lifting Michigan’s cap on charter schools and thereby allowing the explosion of semiprivate educational institutions across the state — and especially in the city of Detroit. In 2006, 20 percent of Detroit’s school-age children were enrolled in charter schools. Eight years later, that percentage had shot up to 55 percent.

A yearlong 2014 investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that “Michigan taxpayers pour nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools — but state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.”

The abuses unearthed by the newspaper include improvident spending; charter school officials, founders and other employees using their power to secure “lucrative deals” for themselves and their fellow insiders; charter schools that stay open for years “despite poor academic records”; and no state standards for the operation or oversight of these charters.

At the root of these abuses, teachers say, is the fact that over three-quarters of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit companies.

Teachers tell stories of how charter school companies come in, line their friends up with well-paying gigs, make millions, and, in some cases, the schools fail, and then the companies leave with their multimillion-dollar profits.

“I want people to look at how each one of these companies have made millions of dollars,” Weir said. “They have left, and education scores have not gotten any better.”

As a former Michigan Education Association representative and a former National Education Association representative, Inchaustegui has seen this happen across Detroit. “If you look at the legislation, it definitely points to the direction of ‘We want to privatize, or charterize, Detroit.'”

Meanwhile, the charter schools are not sufficiently educating Detroit’s children.

Recent research from the Stanford University CREDO Research Center shows that 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools have academic achievement below the state average in reading, and 84 percent have lower academic achievement in math.

Roughly 70 percent of charter schools in Detroit ranked in the bottom quarter of all Michigan public schools in 2013-14. Additionally, among Detroit charter districts with high Black student enrollment, two-thirds of the students performed below Detroit Public Schools on the state’s 2013 eighth grade math assessment.

“The privatization and charterization of schools is a failing experiment,” said Weir, “and it’s disproportionately in poor, Black and disenfranchised neighborhoods.”

Effects on Detroit’s Children

Statewide, Michigan’s high school graduation rates have risen in recent years, but Detroit Public Schools’ rate still lags behind most other districts by 10 to 15 percentage points.

As Weir said, “They’re not prepared for the 21st century — what else are they going to do? They’re headed for that school-to-prison pipeline. We hate that we are a part of that.”

Children who do not graduate from high school have much higher chances of ending up in jail or juvenile detention and will earn $10,386 less per year than the typical high school graduate (and $36,424 less than a college graduate).

In 2010, 14.7 percent of male high school dropouts aged 18-34 spent time behind bars, while only 3 percent of male high school graduates in the same age group were incarcerated.

“If you have an entire society of young people that aren’t getting the education they need — if they dropped out of high school, they’re not going to get a job, so what are they going to turn to?” asked former kindergarten teacher Nancy Pate, who taught in Detroit for 16 years before quitting this January because of DPS’s rampant problems.

“When you don’t have the necessary education that you need, it’s definitely going to contribute in the future to the jobs that [our kids] can hold,” Harris said. “Those skills [are built] up from primary, to elementary, to high school — and if those resources are not being provided, our kids are really not going to be prepared as well as another district that has those resources for their children. There has to be equality.”

The Future

No matter what happens, Detroit’s teachers say they will continue to fight for their children until they get an equal and fair education.

As Conaway said, “This is the most dynamic movement I’ve ever been in in my life to restore civil rights … This is our opportunity to make history, to restore democratic rights, against these outrageous racist attacks … [We want] the restoration of a fully empowered, elected school board to Detroit, and then we can negotiate to stop the selling off of our schools to charters. The key for the teachers right now is to keep this momentum going and to unite.”

When asked what’s needed for the education system of Detroit to prosper, Robinson responded, “For [the state] to stop oppressing these neighborhoods, and these towns, and these cities. Allow them to be how they were, under elected control, and take away the systemic oppression … Our communities don’t need the saving grace of white people; we just need to be allowed to flourish and do what we want to do to rise their city up.

“Stop oppressing us.”

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