Detroit's struggle to write a new chapter for its schools

Teachers and parents filed a lawsuit Thursday over the state of the schools. They're seeking local control after years under a state-appointed emergency manager.

Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press/AP
Pam Barnes, right, and Asher Huey, of the American Federation of Teachers, walk by some missing ceiling tiles while touring Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics Science and Technology in Detroit, Jan. 14, 2016. They were looking at some of the conditions that have prompted sickouts by Detroit Public Schools teachers.

The pictures of Detroit schools infested with patches of mold and dead rodents, with crumbling buildings sporting leaky roofs and buckling floors, have horrified parents nationwide.

Those conditions, plus overcrowded classrooms, classes taught by uncertified teachers, and declining pay, have long been a concern for teachers. But because of the outrage over children in nearby Flint, Mich., being poisoned by lead-tainted water, the cries from Detroit are suddenly resonating with a wider, more responsive audience.

After more than a decade of losing enrollment and amassing debt largely under state-appointed emergency managers, the Detroit public school district could be on the verge of writing a new chapter for itself – one in which educators, students, and parents insist on taking back control of their destiny.

Through a series of “sickouts” that forced more than half of schools  to close in recent weeks, teachers “have effectively made the argument that we’re seeing a lack of accountability,” says Thomas Pedroni, a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan who has studied the impact of education policies in Detroit and the state. “There are a lot of signs ... that a lot of this could have been prevented if [the schools] had democratic oversight.”

The Motor City isn’t the only urban district where years of state takeover have failed to bring about promised improvements. From Chicago, to Newark, N.J., parents and teachers have been mobilizing to restore power to elected school boards. The era of “accountability” reforms, they say, has reduced their children to test scores and dollar figures and taken away the democratic notion of schools being accountable to what the community values in education.

The same emergency manager in charge of Detroit Public Schools (DPS), Darnell Earley, was the emergency manager over the city of Flint when it switched its water source. Whether or not he was at fault in that situation, Professor Pedroni says, it has helped people “connect the dots” and rebel against GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and his appointees.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT), the teachers' state and national unions, and several parents filed a lawsuit Thursday to try to force Mr. Earley’s resignation, restore local control, and accelerate fixes of health and safety-code violations in the schools.

One judge had earlier drawn a connection to Flint, when Earley sought to save $3 million a year by cutting down the number of engineers responsible for overseeing school boilers. Codes require at least one boiler operator at each school building, but the change would have reduced it to one for every five schools. “[Flint] has taught us that when we place financial expediency over basic and critical public health needs, we reap what we sow.... Let us not have the next headline to go national be: ‘Detroit Schoolchildren Injured and Killed in Unattended Boiler Explosion,' " Judge David Allen wrote in his ruling.

Governor Snyder has acknowledged that the current school system isn’t meeting the needs of Detroit’s families. With many parents opting for charter or private schools for their kids, enrollment has dropped from 150,000 in 2004 to about 46,000. The district’s long-term debt now tops $3.5 billion. The percent of funding that goes to the classroom has dropped from 58 percent to just under 47 percent since 2009. That compares with a 61 percent average in the state during the 2013-14 school year. The gap between student test scores in the district and the state has also grown.

In the fall, Snyder proposed a new plan to keep the old district in place to pay off the debt, with state assistance, while shifting all the educational functions to a new district under the control of a board appointed by him and the mayor, which would later become a locally elected board.

But for many, patience with state control has run out.

“Educators and parents have been raising the red flag for years about dangerous school conditions, only to be snubbed, ignored, and disrespected by DPS and the emergency managers ... and now it’s time to give up the reins,” said DFT interim president Ivy Bailey in a conference call announcing the lawsuit.

Some are also questioning the constitutionality of the emergency management system, which has been in place not only in Detroit but in a number of other Michigan communities, primarily those with largely African-American populations, says Pamela Pugh, a member of the State of Michigan Board of Education. The state board has had no authority over the emergency managers, she says.

Voters in Michigan repealed the law giving authority to emergency managers in 2012. But Snyder and the GOP-controlled Legislature created a new law – and made it immune to voters overturning it by attaching funding.

“Everyone is alarmed.... I think the public will continue to bring attention to the devastation this law is causing,” Ms. Pugh says.

On Wednesday, Democratic state lawmakers introduced legislation that would repeal the emergency manager law.

Earley did not return a call requesting comment in time for deadline. But he and others have argued that the teacher sickouts amount to illegal strikes, causing too many disruptions for students and their families. He has sought a court order to block the protests, and a hearing is set for mid-February.

“People who collect the paychecks should show up for work,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington. But he agrees the teachers’ concerns are legitimate. “It’s hard to understand how [district officials] can’t manage to make sure there’s not mold in their buildings.”

Some of the other necessary tasks, such as closing schools that aren’t full so more dollars can be spent maintaining a smaller number of buildings, are easier said than done, whether it’s a state-appointed manager or an elected board in charge, Mr. Hess says.

For their part, a number of students have pushed back against the argument that the teacher sickouts are harming them. They’ve staged their own walkouts despite being threatened with long suspensions.

“Trying to silence teachers by threatening to take away their jobs is childish and unfair to my education,” sophomore Imani Harris wrote in a letter published in the Detroit Metro Times. “None of you have to come to school every day and share books (if we even have books), or be in the middle of doing work and the lights cut off. None of you have to worry about your safety everyday of your life, or walk past mushrooms growing in the hallway. None of you have to skip lunch every day because the food is moldy, and the milk is old.”

Imani encouraged activists to press on: “We have come too far, and opened too many doors to stop now. Things finally have a chance to turn around, and not only for my school, but for all of the other DPS schools. We deserve better.”

At the Thursday press conference, parent Shoniqua Kemp spoke passionately about the condition of the schools, saying state officials should "think about what it would mean if it was your child ... [who had ] to endure these conditions that were not fit sometimes for even an animal.... Right is right and wrong is wrong."

Calls for Earley to resign have been mounting.

To be effective, a district leader has to “work with the people and ... can’t be arrogant.... He does not have that image right now,” says Mario Morrow, a former district leader who also spent some time working for the first DPS emergency manager, appointed by a Democratic governor.

But the broader issue is that the emergency management system has taken educators out of the driver’s seat in favor of treating the system like a business, Mr. Morrow and others say. “When you don’t understand the product – teachers and students and parents – you can’t solve the problem. You’re treating kids like they’re widgets.”

For people who believe the success of public schools is measured not just by test scores, but also by the civic involvement of families and other community members, the teacher sickouts in Detroit mark an exciting, hopeful moment.

“It’s not just people saying we need greater local control and engagement, but people are already doing that,” says David Meens, an education researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “People are getting some skin in the game and taking up policy..., saying, ‘We have a right to participate in this conversation.’ ”

 Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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