Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.

DeVos Family Contributes Lavishly to Legislators Who Defeated Detroit Charter School Oversight

I grew up in Montana, where in Montana history class we learned that at one time Anaconda Copper owned the state legislature. While the patrons have changed over the decades, the political process hasn’t been cleaned up. Amazingly the extraction industry has been replaced by the education sector these days in a number of states. On Tuesday this blog covered the investments being made in Ohio to block the regulation of the notorious online charter schools. Today the subject is Michigan and the massive payoffs this summer by Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Grand Rapids couple who made their fortune in Amway. Dick and Betsy DeVos have been investing heavily this summer to ensure that Detroit’s for-profit charter operators won’t be regulated.

Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, explains: “There’s nothing more difficult than proving quid pro quos in politics, the instances in which favor is returned for specific monetary support. But look at the amounts involved, and consider the DeVos’ near sole interest in the issue of school choice. It’s a fool’s errand to imagine a world in which the family’s deep pockets haven’t skewed the school debate to the favor of their highly financed lobby.”  The Great Lakes Education Project is the Michigan pro-charter school lobby underwritten by the DeVos family, who also launched All Children Matter in the spring of 2003 to promote private school vouchers. Dick and Betsy DeVos later founded the American Federation for Children, which has, according to ThinkProgress, worked with its closely related PAC to serve “as a launching pad for school choice legislation across the country.”

You’ll remember that earlier this summer the state legislature in Michigan passed a bill to prevent the bankruptcy of the Detroit Public Schools, but at the last minute the legislature removed the Detroit Education Commission, an agency that had been designed to regulate an out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector and to oversee, for example, the siting of schools to ensure that the needs of children instead of the marketing plans of charter chains determine where schools are opened and closed. Even Governor Rick Snyder had approved the creation of the Detroit Education Commission, but the Michigan House removed it suddenly in a late night session. (This blog has covered the Detroit Public Schools and charter school expansion in Detroit here.)

Henderson explains what happened: “Bought and paid for. Back in June, that’s how I described the Detroit school legislation that passed in Lansing—a filthy, moneyed kiss to the charter school industry at the expense of the kids who’ve been victimized by those schools’ unaccountable inconsistency… The DeVos family, owners of the largest charter lobbying organization, has showered Michigan Republican candidates and organizations with impressive and near-unprecedented amounts of money this campaign cycle: $1.45 million in June and July alone—over a seven-week period, an average of $25,000 a day.”

Here are the details according to Henderson: “Back in March, the Senate voted to place charter schools under the same authority as public schools in the city for quality control and attention to population need and balance…. But when the bills moved to the state House, lawmakers gutted that provision, returning a bill to the Senate that preserved the free-for-all charter environment that has locked Detroit in an educational morass for two decades. After less than a week of debate, the Senate caved.”

Why did the legislature capitulate to the wishes of Dick and Betsy DeVos?  “Five days later, several members of the DeVos family made the maximum allowable contributions to the Michigan Republican Party, a total of roughly $180,000. The next day, DeVos family members made another $475,000 in contributions to the party. It was the beginning of a spending spree that would swell to $1.45 million in contributions to the party and to individual candidates by the end of July….”

Henderson defines what ought to be the goal of education in contrast to what has become the mission of charter school supporters in Michigan: “Education should always be about children. But in Michigan, children’s education has been squandered in the name of a reform ‘experiment,’ driven by ideologies that put faith in markets alone, as the best arbiters of quality, and so heavily financed by donors like the DeVos clan that nearly no other voices get heard in the educational conversation.”

While Michigan is unique in the power of the Grand Rapids DeVos family, the welfare of children in many states is threatened by the power of charter school money. Henderson concludes: “The polite term for this kind of reflexive giving is transactional politics; it is the way things work not just in Lansing but in Washington, and in political circles in all 50 states.”

Even from Its Deathbed, Michigan State-Takeover EAA Continues to Rob Detroit District

Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, has done everything he could to privatize and take over and bankrupt the state’s poorest school districts.

Since 2012, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park were turned over to Mosaica and the Leona Group, private, for-profit charter management organizations. Both went broke and abandoned these projects. The state has also intervened in other poor districts like Inkster and Buena Vista and Pontiac with closures and takeovers and privatization the only result. Then there have been the governor-appointed austerity emergency managers, put in place to cut costs.  In Detroit a succession of these so-called fiscal managers burdened the Detroit Public Schools with a staggering long-term debt of $3.5 billion. Then there has been the out-of-control charter school sector that has sucked students and money out of Detroit’s public schools, but even as the legislature passed a plan in June to restructure and ameliorate the district’s debt, lawmakers left out the proposed Detroit Education Commission, which had been designed to provide some oversight of school choice district-wide.

On top of all this, there has been Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state takeover district created by the Snyder administration back in 2012 in collaboration with Eastern Michigan University and modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery School District.  Its supporters said state takeover would improve Michigan’s lowest-achieving schools through the imposition of state management.  The Education Achievement Authority never did well enough to expand beyond the 15 Detroit schools it originally seized. John Covington who was brought in as EAA’s chancellor, purchased from a private contractor the expensive, ineffective electronic BUZZ curriculum that, it turned out, was still in the development stage and not fully functional. Covington was forced out after a scandal about his personal expenses. EAA was always unpopular with Eastern Michigan University’s board of regents, who finally voted last February to pull out, effectively setting an 18 month sunset for EAA.  It’s final demise is guaranteed by the new legislative rescue plan for Detroit’s schools.

But the damage wrought by the Education Achievement Authority continues to surface even as its demise is guaranteed. Early this week it emerged that the EAA owes Detroit Public Schools millions of dollars. Here is reporter, Shawn Lewis in the Detroit News: “The Education Achievement Authority owes Detroit Public Schools $14.8 million in unpaid rent for the use of former DPS classroom buildings, plus information technology and safety services for fiscal years 2015 and 2016….”  Lewis adds that last February, the EAA’s current state-appointed chancellor, Veronica Conforme, asked then-Emergency Manager Darnell Earley (of Flint water notoriety) for relief from the debt.

All this emerged as internal e-mails were made public this week, including one that was sent by Thomas Saxton, of the State Treasury Department, to officials in the governor’s office: “In February, the EAA (Veronica) approached Darnell at DPS with a request for relief from the aforementioned debt through an amendment to the lease agreement which would forgive all of the EAA rent debt… I advised Darnell not to sign it.  I have spoken to Veronica once about this and it has come up in conversation(s) with Steven Rhodes (the emergency manager who replaced Darnell Earley).  Darnell did not sign the amendment before he left and now Veronica has requested Judge Rhodes to sign it…. While we understand forgiving this debt would clear up the EAA’s books, it would be detrimental to DPS.”

Lewis writes that the debt being discussed in this e-mail conversation included $6.5 million for rent in 2016, $1.5 million for IT (information technology) services and $400,000 for safety services.  Lewis adds that on Monday of this week, Ms. Conforme announced that the EAA will pay the full amount for safety and police services, while EAA continues to negotiate with the Detroit Public Schools about the rent owed by EAA.

In a follow-up, Detroit Free Press reporter, Ann Zaniewski adds that EAA’s Chancellor Conforme believes the Detroit rescue legislation, adopted by the Michigan legislature in June, erased EAA’s debt to the Detroit school district for rent: “EAA officials told the Free Press that Conforme told state officials in the spring that the EAA was building its budget around the lease debt being eliminated… At an EAA board meeting in June, an EAA official said the annual fees the district is supposed to pay for using DPS buildings dropped from $6 million to $1 million because of recent education reform legislation.”

It’s not yet clear whether Detroit Public Schools, struggling to crawl out from under massive debt, will be able to recoup back rent from the state that is supposed to be involved in the negotiated financial rescue of the Detroit Public Schools.  What is clear is that the Education Achievement Authority, a state takeover imposed by the Snyder administration that was supposed to be another way the state would help some of Michigan’s poorest children by improving their schools, has just been one more drain on the budget of the Detroit Public Schools along with being an educational failure.

Here is the analysis of Thomas Pedroni, a professor of education at Wayne State University: “The revelation of the $14.8 million debt, which exists at Snyder’s pleasure, comes at a time when DPS children have faced a siphoning off of classroom dollars that might have been used to alleviate ballooning class sizes, repair dilapidated and dangerous buildings, and attract and retain high quality certified teachers in the district… Snyder’s control of the EAA, much like his control of Flint, has always been about enriching business opportunities whatever the cost to the health and wellbeing and future lives of Black children.”

NY Times Publishes Major Expose of Detroit’s Charter School Catastrophe

Kate Zernike’s extraordinary expose in yesterday’s NY Times about K-12 education in Detroit, Michigan is a must-read.  The headline describes the reality today in Detroit: For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This post will summarize Zernike’s critique, but you’ll need to read her piece to learn how Detroit’s school-choice realities are being felt by the city’s poorest parents—who must spend hours delivering their children to schools spread across the 140 square mile school district where public transportation is inadequate and many charters do not provide any busing.  You’ll also learn how unregulated, awful schools are truncating the futures of the children Zernike profiles.

Zernike narrates the history of Detroit’s school marketplace.  In 1993, John Engler, Michigan’s “free-market-inclined governor,” “embraced the idea of creating schools that were publicly financed but independently run….” “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools.  It got competition, and chaos. Detroit schools have long been in decline academically and financially. But over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States. While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

Lack of regulation was a cornerstone of school choice in Detroit from the very beginning. School districts, community colleges and public universities can authorize and supposedly oversee charter schools, and they get an incentive of 3 percent of the state dollars paid to each charter school they sponsor.  “And only they—not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education—could shut down failing schools.”  Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are operated by for-profit management companies: “The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors. Sometimes they were one and the same, as with J.C. Huizenga, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur who founded Michigan’s largest charter school operator, the for-profit National Heritage Academies.  Two of the biggest players in Michigan politics, Betsy and Dick DeVos—she the former head of the state Republican Party, he the heir to the Amway fortune and a 2006 candidate for governor—established the Great Lakes Educational Project, which became the state’s most pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative…  Even as Michigan and Detroit continued to hemorrhage residents, the number of schools grew.  The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools.” Huizenga even managed to get a law passed by the state legislature that permits for-profit charter companies not to pay taxes on any properties they lease to schools.

It is a free-for-all that has failed the children but has at the same time been profitable for the charter management companies and their sponsors: “With about $1.1 billion in state tax dollars going to charter schools, those that grant  the charters get about $33 million. Those institutions are often far from the schools; one, Bay Mills Community College, is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nearly 350 miles away—as far from Detroit as Portland, ME., is from New York City.”

Zernike profiles families whose children have changed schools multiple times after parents, drawn by incentives and promises of quality education, discover they have been sold a myth: “With all the new schools, Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than it needs.  The competition to get students to school on count day—the days in October and February when the head count determines how much money the state sends each school—can resemble a political campaign.  Schools buy radio ads and billboards, sponsor count day pizza parties and carnivals.  They plant rows of lawn signs along city streets to recruit students, only to have other schools pull those up and stake their own.”

Finally this year, as the legislature set out to develop a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from years’ of deficit spending by a succession of state-appointed emergency managers, it seemed as though there would be a way incorporate some charter oversight as part of the plan, but it didn’t work out.  Mayor Mike Duggan, “proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate… Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, the mayor got a Republican senator from Western Michigan to sponsor legislation, including the commission.  Governor Snyder, distracted and shamed by the scandal over the lead poisoning in the water supply of the mostly black and state-controlled city of Flint, was in no position to defend the state control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal… But the Great Lakes Education Project and other charter school lobbying groups warned that the commission would favor public schools over charters…. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission.”

Please read For Detroit’s Children, More School Choice but Not Better Schools.  This blog has covered the problems in the Detroit Public Schools here.

Presidential Candidate John Kasich: Delusional about Public Education Issues

Republicans have hardly been discussing education policy at all in this bizarre Presidential race, but last week in the Thursday night debate, Ohio’s governor, John Kasich lavished praise upon himself for what he believes are his accomplishments in reforming education. He also addressed something he clearly knows little about—the plight of Detroit’s schools.  Kudos to two reporters who jumped right in to expose the flaws in his arguments.

Kasich bragged about how school reform has led to the rebirth of Cleveland.  Many people would be surprised to view Cleveland as reborn.  It was  described in the NY Times last week by a new group of researchers to be the poorest large city in the United States. Whether one slices and dices the statistics the way these researchers do—calling Cleveland or Detroit the poorest—one thing is clear: neither Cleveland nor its school district has had a rebirth.

Plain Dealer education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell notes in his report on the Republican debate that Kasich bragged: “The African American Democrat mayor, the union, and business leaders came to see me and said, ‘Would you help us to pass legislation to really create a CEO environment so that we can take control of the schools?'” O’Donnell corrects Kasich’s memory of his own central role: “Cleveland has had a CEO—not a superintendent—as head of the district since 1998.  That’s when former mayor Mike White hired Barbara Byrd-Bennett (recently indicted in Chicago after heading the schools there) as the first CEO, following the state legislature voting in 1997 to place the district under mayoral control.  Kasich was chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee at the time.'”

O’Donnell explains that the Cleveland Teachers Union was not involved in the implementation of a “portfolio school reform” transformation plan in 2012 for the Cleveland District—a plan designed by the Boston Consulting Group and underwritten with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation. O’Donnell chides Kasich for misremembering: “While Mayor Frank Jackson, a black Democrat, and business leaders were behind creating the plan, the teachers union was not.  The union never ‘came to’ the governor seeking help, but was angry at being left out of the creation of the plan.”  When he heard Kasich’s comment in Thursday’s debate, CTU President David Quolke is reported by O’Donnell to have declared: “That’s an outright lie. That did not occur.” O’Donnell continues: “When Jackson announced his plan early in 2012, he had never consulted the union. That sparked weeks of long and tense negotiations between teachers, the mayor and city leaders about how teacher pay, duties, and layoff rules would be changed.”

As to Kasich’s debate claim that “Cleveland’s coming back. The Cleveland schools are coming back because of a major overhaul,” O’Donnell responds, “That’s still to be determined.”  The district was able to pass a school levy after the plan was introduced, but that levy must be renewed by voters next November, and the mass of Cleveland’s traditional public schools, including the city’s flagship high schools, are suffering from lack of investment.  Kasich and his all-Republican legislature have determinedly cut state funding for education during his term.

And on Friday, right after Kasich bragged about the transformation of Cleveland’s schools, O’Donnell reported: “The Cleveland Teachers Union had an overwhelming vote this week of ‘no confidence’ in school district CEO Eric Gordon and his understanding of issues facing students and teachers… The union said that of 3,153 members who voted this week, 97.3 percent voted ‘no confidence.'”  Under CEO Gordon, the district has withdrawn from ongoing contract negotiations with the Cleveland Teachers Union.

During Thursday night’s debate when he was asked about the current crisis in Detroit’s public schools, Kasich demonstrated that he has not been paying attention to what’s been happening in the state next door to Ohio. Seemingly unaware of catastrophic budget problems in a school district where teachers have been protesting rats, leaking roofs, and buckling floors and where the district’s financial crisis is so severe that it may miss a payroll in April, Kasich is described by Emma Brown of the Washington Post switching his response to what he believes are the redeeming qualities of mayoral control, a governance structure that operates in Cleveland but not in Detroit: “Leaving aside the question of whether mayoral control would really be enough to fix Detroit’s problems, there is this fact: Detroit is not under mayoral control.  The city’s schools have been under state-appointed emergency manager for years.”   Brown adds that Governor Rick Snyder’s, “state-appointed emergency manager of the (Detroit) school system was, until a few days ago Darnell Earley.  Earley previously served as the state emergency manager of Flint, Mich., from 2013-2015.  It was during that period that Flint began using the Flint River as its drinking water source, a move that led to elevated lead levels in the water and a public health crisis.”

In fact, last summer in Ohio, Governor Kasich and Beth Hansen—formerly Kasich’s gubernatorial chief-of-staff and now head of his presidential campaign—and her husband David Hansen—formerly head of school choice in the state education department until he was fired for designing a charter school rating system that favored the notorious online charters—worked together to design and fast-track a state takeover plan similar to the one that seems to be failing in nearby Michigan.  In a twenty-four hour period last June, the state takeover of the Youngstown school district and, in the future any school district with persistently low state rankings, was rushed without sufficient hearings through the Ohio legislature.

As Kasich bragged about his education policies in last Thursday’s televised debate, he demonstrated that he is not aware of problems in Michigan caused by exactly the kind of policy he has most recently been pushing through Ohio’s super-majority Republican legislature.  The Kasich brand of school reform is ideological: cut taxes and hence school funding; privatize by expanding charters; impose state takeover of public schools in the poorest cities. Kasich may like to believe his ideas will bring back Cleveland and Youngstown and Lorain, but there are a lot of people in Ohio who don’t believe his self-congratulatory myth.

Emergency Managers Burden Detroit Public Schools with Staggering Deficit

What is happening most notably in Detroit but also in Philadelphia and Chicago would not be possible in your public schools if you live in a prosperous community or a middle income suburb, or a small city or town with a mix of rich and middle income and poor families.  The plight of the public schools and their teachers and their students in these big cities and others scattered across the states is the result of structural poverty and powerlessness and the unwillingness of local and state officials to find a way fairly to serve the children.  As is happening right now in Detroit and Chicago, everybody is blaming the teachers’ pension funds and by extension blaming the teachers.

Here is what has actually been happening.  In Chicago the school district pays into the state teachers’ pension when required to do so, but then the school district borrows the money right back out.  In Detroit, the school district has pretty often over the years failed to pay in what is required.  It has not only withheld its own contributions, but according to a recent report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, it has sometimes missed contributing each teacher’s own share—the part withheld from each teacher’s paycheck. The financial morass is so convoluted and arcane that nobody can really understand the details.  The fact is that these school districts—and in Detroit the state emergency managers who were supposedly appointed to deal with the district’s financial crisis—have put the school districts so far in debt that nobody knows how to dig them out.

This week Detroit’s teachers have been staging a sick-out to bring attention to the problems in the schools where they work.  The Associated Press reports that on Tuesday the mayor of Detroit (whose city, by Michigan law, is a separate jurisdiction from the school district) visited some of the schools across the city.  He found a dead mouse in one school; in others he found children shivering in their coats all morning as the poorly heated buildings warmed up after a cold night.  Neither his visit nor the protests of the city’s teachers have speeded up any kind of solution coming from Lansing.  Reporting for The Guardian, Ryan Felton explains: “Teachers say students are already devastated by conditions in the district, which is facing financial calamity with liabilities of $3 billion.”

The district currently serves 47,000 students, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder has proposed splitting the district, turning more schools into charters, and using property taxes to pay off the debt instead of for educating the children.  Felton explains that nearly half the state’s per-pupil funding currently pays for debt servicing instead of educating the children.  One of teachers’ primary complaints is that class sizes are astronomical, a not-surprising situation in a district neglecting to hire more teachers it says it cannot afford.  Last April, John Eligon of the NY Times explained how Governor Snyder proposes to revamp the system and its finances: “The current district, with the emergency manager and current school board, will take on the operating debt and make sure it is paid off through a tax levy that collects about $72 million a year.  Meanwhile, under the plan, a new district called the City of Detroit Education District would be created and would rely on additional funding from the state of up to $72 million a year to operate.  The bond debt would go to the new district, to be paid down by a tax that is currently collected.”  It’s not hard to see why the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Steve Conn, commented: “It’s just layer after layer of bureaucracy and playing funny with the money.”

The merits of Snyder’s proposal and its deficiencies are meaningless to date because Snyder, a Republican, has been unable to get his all-Republican legislature to weigh in on the plan.  Detroit’s problems are complicated by a declining population and an over-built, mostly for-profit, and largely unregulated charter sector.  As charter schools have rapidly expanded, they have sucked students and state funding out of the public schools.  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….’”

Here is the conclusion of the new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan: “Detroit Public Schools has $3.5 billion in outstanding debt.  Nearly half of this amount, $1.67 billion, is capital liabilities payable with a dedicated millage… The balance of DPS’s liabilities are related to legacy costs and repaying short-term borrowings converted to long-term debt by state-appointed emergency managers.  This includes $1.3 billion that represents DPS’s estimated share of the unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities for retiree pension and health care costs…. A plan that solves the district’s money problems without addressing what is taking place in the classroom will not set the district up for future success.  Similarly, any financial plan that only deals with the district’s near-term fiscal woes (cash flow for example) will not prove lasting and will not support student learning over the long haul if current financial problems are shifted to future students.”

In Michigan’s poorest urban areas it has been pretty clear that Governor Snyder’s appointed emergency managers—people whose power is not constrained by checks and balances as they can override locally elected city councils and school boards and are given the power to abrogate union contracts—have been neglecting the needs of children. The lead poisoning of Flint’s public water supply, under Darnell Earley, Snyder’s appointed emergency manager of that city, has been widely reported. Now we learn that Governor Snyder has appointed Darnell Earley as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools. While the schools’ financial crisis predates Earley, Snyder’s appointment of Earley to lead Detroit’s public schools ironically highlights how absolutely Michigan is failing to protect the basic rights of the state’s poorest children.

Rachel Maddow on Michigan Schools—An Extra This Morning

I regularly follow Michigan’s Eclectablog, because it is a place to learn about the very difficult and complex issues around Michigan’s public schools, now in many cases privatized. This morning Electablog referred me to a video clip from Rachel Maddow on MSNBC covering the story of the closing of a school she has been tracking for several years, Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school that will close on June 30.

To provide context for her story on Catherine Ferguson Academy, Maddow fills in much of the history of what has been happening in Michigan’s schools.  The emergency managers.  The fact that when the citizens of Michigan voted to overturn the state’s emergency manager law, the legislature came right back with another one that is referendum-proof.  The charter management organizations running whole school districts—and the one that is giving up this June because it can’t make a profit.  The only thing Maddow doesn’t cover is that Michigan has been closing whole school districts—by state fiat—when they are broke and unsuccessful.

The problem with covering school news in Michigan is that it’s hard to make it clear or believable.  The school news in Michigan’s poorest communities of color is such a perversion of what tax supported public education is supposed to be that it cannot be normalized enough to make it seem real to most of us.  And the details are tangled and murky.

Here is an extra blog post on this Friday morning.  I urge you to watch Rachel Maddow’s coverage.  Maddow is clear.  She is concise.  She is accurate.  The story is tragic.