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.

Legislature Debates Detroit Schools’ Bailout, Gov. Snyder’s Future Fades

Finally, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder has agreed to testify before the U.S. House Oversight Committee tomorrow about his role and the role of his appointed Emergency Fiscal Manager Darnell Earley in the circumstances that left Flint with a lead poisoned water system.  Lenny Bernstein and Joby Warrick, reporters for the Washington Post quote the committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland: “Contrary to Gov. Snyder’s recent claim that he requested this ‘opportunity to testify,’ the reality is that he is finally bowing to mounting public pressure to answer questions before Congress about the central and critical role his administration played in this man-made disaster.”

Snyder was, according to the Post‘s reporters, considered a rising political star when he became governor in 2011. He was at the time a venture capitalist who had presided over the successful Gateway computer company, and he promised to run Michigan like a successful business.  After a Michigan law to permit appointed emergency fiscal managers for municipalities and school districts was defeated by referendum in November 2012, he got it reinserted into an appropriations bill that is, in Michigan, referendum-proof.  And his emergency fiscal managers have been his tool not only for managing struggling municipalities, but also for the state’s poorest school districts.  After Darnell Earley finished his stint in Flint, Snyder put him in charge of the Detroit Public Schools.

The thing is that the emergency fiscal managers are appointed by Governor Snyder not so much to worry about the quality of government services for citizens or about the checks and balances that encourage public accountability and transparency.  They are fiscal managers, and their charge is to impose austerity measures to stave off public bankruptcy.  In Flint, Darnell Earley started using water from the Flint River instead of more expensive, pre-treated water from Detroit, and he saved money by leaving out the anti-corrosives that would have kept lead and iron from leaching out of the pipes.

And in the Detroit Schools, Darnell Earley just kept on turning short-term debt into longer range obligations that now total $3.5 billion.  He closed schools and let the buildings become decrepit.  Without very pricey help from the state legislature, the District is now scheduled to run out of money at the beginning of April.

Here is the latest from reporter Chad Livengood of the Detroit News: “A bipartisan consensus appears to be forming among lawmakers that the state is on the hook for the DPS financial rescue.”  A rescue would be appropriate as the huge deficit has continued to accrue since the state began its most recent takeover of the district in 2009.  Here is what appears to be happening in the legislature: “The Michigan Legislature is preparing to consider a $50 million bailout to keep the Detroit Public Schools operating through June to avert the specter this spring of payless paydays and 46,000 children locked out of shuttered buildings… As their own spring break looms, lawmakers have two weeks to act on Detroit school district Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes’ request for the emergency funding, while a larger debate plays out over Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million, 10-year plan to relieve the Detroit district of debt piled up by Rhodes’ predecessors and create a new debt-free district.”

Steven Rhodes, the retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge who presided over the Detroit municipal bankruptcy, was appointed emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools by Gov. Snyder early in March to take over from Darnell Earley, who resigned his position as of the end of February.

Snyder’s negotiations with legislative Democrats have forced the governor to make some concessions.  First, he has pushed Republican legislators to put some boundaries on the authorization of new charter schools that drain students and money out of the school district.  An enormous problem in Detroit has been out-of-control, unregulated charter schools, and the plan being considered by the legislature would impose some limits on the launch of new charters, according to the Detroit News report: “The latest plan floated in the Senate would revive Snyder’s proposed citywide Detroit Education Commission and empower it to block new charters from setting up shop in Detroit near existing high-performing schools operated by the district or charters.”  A spokesman for Governor Snyder explained that “the governor’s office is seeking ‘quality choice’ for Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.” Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’” Charter school lobbyists are reported by the Detroit News, however, to be pressing legislative Republicans to oppose Snyder’s plan, which, they say, will “increase the enrollment of the new Detroit school district at the expense of competitors.”

Second Snyder has agreed to get rid of the state-run Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state funded, $84 million joint venture with Eastern Michigan University that pulled 15 of  Detroit’s poorest schools under state management.  EAA was supposed to take over other struggling schools outside of Detroit, but EAA has itself experienced mismanagement, and its schools have not demonstrated improvement. Eastern Michigan’s board of regents voted in February to terminate the university’s role in the partnership, a move that would have phased out the EAA by June of 2017.  Now Snyder says he will shut down EAA, and he will let Detroit’s citizens elect a local school board in August to put the school district back under local control, though he would continue to involve the state in turning around the 15 schools currently assigned to EAA.

Rhodes, Snyder’s new appointed emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, has said that his goal is, “to restore local control of the district as quickly and efficiently as possible.”  In a move to build community support in Detroit, Rhodes has appointed a school superintendent, Alycia Meriweather, a Detroit native, veteran teacher, and former head of curriculum for the school district.

Snyder has proposed a complicated state-local, two district arrangement as a path to long range solvency for the school district.  The state would grant funds to run the schools while local property taxes would flow to the “old” district to pay off the debt.

The Michigan legislature will continue to negotiate the long-range plan.  For now it is engaged in a more urgent project before the legislature itself goes on its spring break on March 24: pass short term debt relief to keep the teachers paid and Detroit’s 45,000 students in classes until the school year ends in June.

In the meantime, Governor Snyder faces serious political problems and faces threat of a recall.  Writing for the NY Times, Julie Bosman recently described Snyder and his challenges: “Mr. Snyder’s opponents have said that the governor’s political crisis is one of his own making, the result of a disconnected management style and lack of knowledge of the workings of government.”  “Many Michigan voters now blame him for how he handled two of the state’s biggest debacles, the tainted water crisis in Flint and the tattered Detroit public schools.”  “For a man who swept into office in 2010 by promoting his resume as a no-nonsense accountant and businessman who was above politics, Governor Snyder now finds himself in the middle of the kind of bitter partisan warfare that he has long disdained.”