In Michigan Politics Children Are Mere Afterthought

In Detroit last week the Michigan House of Representatives passed a plan that, if it can be reconciled with another plan enacted earlier by the Michigan Senate, will ensure that all the teachers will be paid for their work during the current school year.  But the House scheme comes at enormous cost to the future of the school district.  And Speaker of the Michigan House, Kevin Cotter, made a point—rhetorically and legislatively—of attacking Detroit’s school teachers as though they are somehow at fault here.

The Michigan Senate had already passed a much earlier proposal from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to create a long-term arrangement for addressing the financial crisis (that, ironically, has rapidly grown in Detroit during the tenure since 2009 of a series of state-appointed fiscal managers). Last week, after leading the Michigan House of Representatives to delay action on Snyder’s and the Senate’s plan, House Speaker Cotter blamed Detroit’s school teachers because, banned by law from striking, they have organized sickouts to protest filthy conditions, disrepair of buildings, and the current Emergency Manager’s announcement last week that teachers would likely not receive all of their pay for the current school year.

Here is how House Speaker Cotter described the problem the House was expected to address: “The Detroit Federation of Teachers is once again putting the wants of adults ahead of the needs of children, specifically the 40,000 Detroit schoolchildren who were left out in the rain this morning.  At an absolutely critical time for a city on the path to recovery, Detroit’s next generation has now lost more than 1,000,000 instruction hours they will never recover to cheap political stunts.  These egotistical teachers have lashed out at the children who rely on them and accomplished nothing but disrupting their students’ education.  Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves.”

It is very clear that Cotter is trying to deflect criticism from his own failed leadership and the failure to act by his legislative colleagues.  He also neglects to mention powerful political contributors who have been pushing anti-public school policy in the Michigan legislature for years now.  Among the most powerful of those political supporters is the Great Lakes Education Project, described by Chad Livengood and Jonathan Oosting of the Detroit News Lansing Bureau as, “a pro-charter group backed by the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan.”  The Senate, in a plan passed earlier, had included a Detroit Education Commission intended to stop runaway charter expansion and ensure some oversight, but the House plan passed after an all-night negotiating session late last week, leaves out the Detroit Education Commission.  Livengood and Oosting quote Gary Naeyaert, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Education Project, who lobbied against the creation of a Detroit Education Commission because, he says, it would favor traditional public schools over charters: “The proposal requires the DEC to serve the interest of the traditional district above charters….” What a radical notion: that the state charged in its constitution with providing a system of public education would favor public education.

Media Matters provides some background about the political investments of Michigan’s DeVos family: “The private foundation of Amway heir Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, members of the ‘ultra-rich, ultra-conservative,’ Koch-allied DeVos family, focuses its philanthropy on right-wing causes under the umbrellas of ‘education,’ ‘community,’ ‘arts,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘leadership.’ Betsy DeVos is also the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice.”

Besides the omission of a commission to regulate the explosive growth in Detroit of for-profit charter schools, the plan passed by the Michigan House slashes the amount of money that Republican leaders in the Senate and Governor Rick Snyder himself agree is necessary to underwrite a plan that will make the Detroit Public Schools viable.  The Snyder-Senate plan was for the state to invest $715 million over 10 years to pay off debts and give the District a new start; the House reduces that to $500 million. The House Plan also includes a lot of the kind of school turnaround strategies that have proven ineffective under federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  A clear focus also seems to be retribution against the Detroit Federation of Teachers.  Early press coverage said that all administrators and teachers would have to reapply for their jobs, though more recent articles (here and here)  explain that only administrators and principals would have to reapply.  The plan would nullify current labor contracts.  Teachers and administrators would be paid by performance.  Unlike other school districts across Michigan, the Detroit district would be permitted to hire non-certified teachers.  Teachers unions would be prohibited from negotiating the school calendar and work schedules.

After intense negotiations last week, Detroit’s teachers went back to work when they were assured in a letter from Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that all teachers would be paid for their work during this school year. However, it was later reported that, “The assurance that Detroit teachers will receive paychecks over the summer is based on Steven Rhodes’ confidence that lawmakers will pass reform legislation and not because of an influx of new money…. Rhodes wrote a letter Tuesday that said all teachers are ‘legally entitled to be paid in full’ for their work, and assures that DPS ‘will honor that legal obligation.’  Ivy Bailey, the interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said she views the letter as a legally binding document the union can take to court to force teachers to be paid if, in fact, the legislation doesn’t pass.”

What is very clear is that the financial catastrophe in the Detroit Public Schools is a long way from being resolved.  It is also clear that the mess is not the fault of the school teachers who continue, despite untenable conditions in their schools, to serve the community’s children.  It is also clear that anti-government, anti-public school forces led by Dick and Betsy DeVos are involved in trying to drive legislators to promote charters and undermine public schools.  And it is clear that for too many politicians in Michigan’s House of Representatives, the 40,000 students enrolled in Detroit’s public schools are merely an afterthought.

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