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The crisis of crumbling Detroit schools

New York Teacher

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Detroit public school teachers rally in January outside a Michigan courthouse to
Jim West Viazuma Wire
Detroit public school teachers rally in January outside a Michigan courthouse to protest the school district’s request for an injunction to stop teacher sickouts meant to bring attention to the neglected school buildings. A judge ultimately denied the district’s request.

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A Detroit teacher lifts up student artwork to reveal a hole in the wall.
Jim West Viazuma Wire
A Detroit teacher lifts up student artwork to reveal a hole in the wall.
When fed-up Detroit teachers staged a “sickout” for several days in January, shutting down all but nine of the district’s 97 schools on one day, they drew back the curtain on the woeful condition of the city’s schools: buckling floors, gaping holes in ceilings, malfunctioning boilers and furnaces, mold and rodents.

At Jason Posey’s school, buckets were placed in different classrooms to collect water from the leaking roof, which was recently patched.

“I don’t know if the patching remedied the problem,” said the 3rd-grade teacher. “It was done only because of the media attention.”

The job action, supported by the local teachers’ union, drew national attention to the crisis of the Detroit school system, which is an extreme example of the disinvestment and privatization that urban school districts across the country have been battling.

Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the lesson for other urban districts was clear: Get out and vote.

Republicans in control

“Part of our problem in Michigan is we have a Republican governor, House and Senate,” Bailey said. “We didn’t have a good turnout when it came to voting. As members, we need to be more actively involved in understanding the legislation that affects us.”

As Detroit’s economy declined and families departed, public school enrollment has been in freefall. The student population dropped from 162,693 in 2000 to 47,328 in 2015, according to a report by the Detroit-based mapping company Loveland Technologies.

The state took control of Detroit Public Schools in 2005 as falling enrollment and mounting debt threatened the financial stability of the district. State control has been a flop, according to Steve Conn, the former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “All that arrogance that they could do better than the people of Detroit — and clearly they’ve done worse,” Conn told the Detroit News last year.

Robin Jennings, a chapter leader in a Detroit school, said members have not had a raise in 10 years. Instead they’ve had cuts in pay and have had to pay more for their medical insurance, she said.

“Teachers are looking for a second job to pay the bills,” Jennings said. “We have done so much with so little for so long.”

Charters abound

The Detroit teachers have seen charters siphon away students and funds. Of the city’s 88,000 students, nearly half attend charter schools. Another 16 low-achieving schools have operated as state-authorized charter schools. But the charters have fared no better than public schools, and in some cases they perform worse.

“Charter schools were supposed to be a model for reform,” said Bailey. “They are a model for disaster.”

Despite the problems, the Michigan state Legislature in 2012 eliminated the requirement that the state education department report on charter school quality each year. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based charter advocacy group, blasted the state for weakening its oversight. Competition for students by charter and district schools is fierce, according to the group. A report issued by the group quoted a parent who said it was a “snatch and grab.”

Today, Detroit schools are on the verge of bankruptcy, with $515 million in debt. The school system needs an additional $50 million simply to finish out the current school year.

Following the sickouts, city inspectors fanned out into the schools, taking notes and promising long overdue repairs. But Bailey, the union president, said she has been “hearing from teachers that the repairs are not being done properly.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has hatched a plan to handle the district’s crushing debt: keep the Detroit Public Schools as a shell company to pay off debt and create a new Detroit district that could enter the future unburdened by debt. But no one is sure exactly what that new district would look like.

“My worst fear is that our schools would be charterized, we’d have more pay cuts, and our bargaining rights would be eliminated,” said Posey, the 3rd-grade teacher.

Then, there is the question of whether Detroit schools should revert back to local control, a plan favored by the state’s new emergency manager. Republicans in the state House of Representatives have proposed curbing collective-bargaining rights for teachers as a condition of the reorganization and return to local control.

Steven Cook, the president of the Michigan Education Association, is watching the House legislation closely. “The House bill would prohibit discussion of the school calendar, teacher evaluations, the layoff and recall of teachers and the teacher discipline process at the bargaining table,” Cook said. “It includes merit pay based on student test scores.”

There is one glimmer of hope in the governor’s plan: The new Detroit school district would be called the Detroit Community Schools. Does that mean the Detroit schools would offer wraparound services — health clinics, job training and referrals — to the wider community?

“If we have anything to do with it, it will,” said Bailey. “We’d like to see our schools be the center of the neighborhood, a place where the community is thriving because of the school.”