For the Poorest Rust Belt School Districts in 2019, June Is the Cruelest Month

States continue to impose punitive school closures and state takeovers on school districts that serve the poorest children.  While the Ohio Senate tinkers with language to embed a new state takeover plan for struggling school districts into the FY 2020-2021 biennial state budget, Michigan plans to shut down Benton Harbor’s high school before June 30, the date when the state is slated to lose control over this district which Michigan’s state-appointed managers have failed to turn around.

Ohio’s Senate pretends it is eliminating a four-year failed experiment in the state takeover of school districts, in which top-down, state-appointed despots have created chaos by wielding unlimited power to reconstitute schools and shake things up. But the substitute plan (buried in the Ohio Senate’s proposed state budget) merely inserts a local committee into the process and calls the new czar a School Improvement Director instead of a CEO. This new overseer, whose responsibility would be to enforce a plan already reviewed and approved by what would be a new Ohio School Transformation Board, would have the power to replace school administrators; assign employees to schools and approve transfers; hire new employees; define employee job descriptions; establish employee compensation; allocate teacher class loads; conduct employee evaluations; reduce staff; set the school calendar; create the budget; contract services for the district; modify policies and procedures established by the district’s elected board; establish grade configurations of the schools; determine the curriculum; select instructional materials and assessments; set class size; and provide staff professional development. The School Improvement Director would also represent the elected school board during any contract negotiations.

What is happening in Michigan is also about a state’s imposed governance, but Michigan’s pending action comes much later in the process.  Michigan has been imposing state governance on school districts and municipalities for years now. In Benton Harbor this June, we are watching what happens when years of state control have failed to accomplish what was promised. Michigan’s state takeover has not turned around the schools in the abjectly poor Benton Harbor community.

Wikipedia describes former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: “Richard Dale Snyder (born August 19, 1958) is an American politician, business executive, venture capitalist, lawyer and accountant who served as the 48th governor of Michigan from 2011 to 2019. He is a member of the Republican Party.” Snyder was a businessman-governor who believed tight management practices could make up for the state’s paltry investment in public schools and municipalities. The poisoning of Flint’s drinking water was one result of Snyder’s pressure to cut costs. Now the new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, finds herself ill equipped to address the school crisis in Benton Harbor which has derived from years of misguided policy on state school finance, on school and municipal governance, and on the segregation of the state by economics as well as race.

Governor Snyder put in place a disastrous set of takeovers of poor communities and school districts. He blamed municipal and school district indebtedness on governance and management. For the Detroit News, Jennifer Chambers reviews some of this history: “In 2013, the state dissolved the Buena Vista School District and Inkster Public Schools. Several districts have been placed into the hands of emergency managers, including Detroit Public Schools and the districts of Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. Both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park now operate as charter districts only. Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said Benton Harbor is a unique case because it’s the only Michigan school district under a consent agreement. That agreement goes away June 30, when the state reform office closes. ‘All of the models dealing with finances of districts don’t involve additional state dollars.  They assume it’s management issues and they assume you can resolve it,’ Thiel said.”

Chambers describes what is happening in Benton Harbor this month: “The future of 700 high school students and the fate of a southwest Michigan school district hangs in the balance this week as the people of Benton Harbor push back against a state plan to close the city’s high schools. The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment. And despite the efforts of a turnaround specialist who was ready to move ahead with educational and financial reforms for the next three years under state watch, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told the community the only course of action left is to close Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school. Whitmer wants to send the students to primarily white, rural, and more affluent districts to address the district’s $18.3 million debt, give high schoolers access to certified teachers and allow educators to focus on K-8 education. The prospect of disbanding the high school and sending hundreds of black students to finish their education in overwhelmingly white suburbs has put a decidedly racial tinge on what is unfolding as the first crisis of Whitmer’s governorship…  Whitmer came to Benton Harbor last week and told residents that dissolving the district is the alternative to closing the high school, given the district’s financial and academic crisis… Robert Herrera, the state-appointed CEO of Benton Harbor Area Schools, who was one year into a four-year contract to turn around the district, said he was shocked to learn the governor wanted to shut down the high schools, a decision he learned in late May. Herrera resigned from the district on Thursday, which is effective June 30.”

Chambers describes the state’s takeover of Benton Harbor Schools: “The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor.  In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the fiscal emergency.  After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high schools.”  Currently, the school district, like many of the districts taken over by emergency managers under Snyder, is paying off an enormous long-term debt, which cuts its operating funds significantly. The debt is over $18 million and expected to rise to $21.5 million by 2020.

Many parents in Benton Harbor have moved their children to surrounding districts under inter-district open enrollment; enrollment has collapsed from 10,000 in  the 1970s to 2,000 today, The loss of state per-pupil dollars has exacerbated the district’s fiscal crisis.  Chambers explains: “The district’s difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000. Many point to the district’s high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified—40 percent fall into this category—as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.”

As a school district serving one of Michigan’s poorest and most racially segregated communities, Benton Harbor represents the problems of the many communities whose troubles have been defined by Governor Snyder and other politicians as management issues—without attention to the state of Michigan’s paltry school funding.  Last February, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized a new in-depth study from Michigan State University: “According to the report, total K-12 education funding declined by 30 percent between 2002 and 2015, with 74 percent of that drop caused by declining state support for schools.” Strauss quotes the report: “Michigan ranks dead last among states in total education revenue growth since the passage of Proposal A (in 1994).  After adjusting for inflation, Michigan’s education revenue in 2015 was only 82 percent of the state’s 1995 revenue. No other state is close to a decline of this magnitude. In 48 states, 2015 education revenue was higher, often much higher, than in 1995.  Michigan’s real per-pupil revenues declined by 15 percent over this same period, ranking 48th among the 50 states.”

In Benton Harbor, two hundred people attended a recent meeting when Governor Gretchen Whitmer came to explain her plan to the community.  State officials appear to feel pressured by the expiration of the 2014 consent agreement on June 30, when control of the school district will revert to the local school board.  Chambers reports the state has given the school board an ultimatum. By mid-June, they must to come up with an alternative plan to the closure of the high school or face the state-imposed closure of the school district.  The local school board, however, appears to be intent on regaining local control by delaying any action past the June 30 deadline.

Chambers quotes Joseph Taylor, the school board’s vice president: “This is a bad plan for the community.  It gets rid of a high school…. High schools are the fabric of anyone’s community, and good high schools create good cities.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad opposes the school closure: “It’s a total affront to the community. It’s not just a slap in the face, but to take away the high school would be like taking down our twin towers.”

Chambers quotes  Dadrainana McFall, a 10th grader and captain of the junior varsity girls’ basketball team: “I don’t have anywhere else to go… I have been in Benton Harbor. I have not been anywhere else other than Benton Harbor. This is my hometown. Benton Harbor created me. I don’t want the school to close.”

Last fall, Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist published an extraordinary book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which explores the impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year—many of them concentrated in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Ewing describes widespread community mourning in a Chicago neighborhood where residents experienced school closures very differently than the officials who had the power to make the top-down choices which are shaping the neighborhoods.

In several years of interviews, Ewing listened as people from the Bronzeville community described the loss of their schools as a death: “Understanding these tropes of death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state—through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration—are receiving renewed attention.  As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they are the same thing. The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere.  In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

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Two Myths Are Part of Shaky Foundation of School “Reform”

Here are two of the myths that underpin the school “reform” movement.  First, there’s the myth that the real problem with American schools is that teachers hold low expectations.  You’ll remember that the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to address “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” And the second myth: schools and especially high schools fail because they are modeled after factories. For seven years, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted that public schools are trapped in the dated industrial model and stuck in the 20th, not the 21st century. These ideas are rarely questioned. What do they mean?  Here are recent articles that examine some of their implications.

Myth 1: Children are falling behind because their teachers hold low expectations.

Gary Rubinstein is a math teacher at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, and a former teacher with Teach for America (TFA), the two-year alternative teacher preparation and recruitment program. Rubinstein publishes a thoughtful blog that critiques TFA and more generally the school “reform” movement.  In a recent post about TFA, Rubinstein digresses into a fascinating reflection on teaching itself and the role of teachers’ expectations:  “How I wish that low expectations were the main difficulty in education. It would be so easy to improve. Teachers would just raise their expectations: Teach a little faster, assign a little more homework, make the tests a little longer, a little more difficult—more ‘rigorous’ if you will.  While I’m certainly not an advocate for low expectations, I think it is definitely naive, and even a bit dangerous, to too blindly believe that the act of just having high expectations will cause students to learn more.”

Rubinstein describes the teacher’s job from the point of view of the practitioner.  And he describes his own experience as a high school math teacher who has considered how to help his students meet expectations: “As a teacher, one of the most important skills to have is known as ‘scaffolding’ where you break down a skill into sub-skills and then teach the kids those sub-skills which you then build up to the big skill. Is that not some form of low expectations?  If I’m an English teacher I suppose I could tell my class to read The Grapes of Wrath in one night.  That’s setting some pretty high expectations.  But will this work?  Or will it discourage kids by asking them to do an unrealistic task.  So I guess I’m an advocate for appropriate expectations, something that a teacher is best able to gauge.”

Myth 2: American Schools Are Like Factories That Process Students Along an Assembly Line

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently published an examination by education historian Jack Schneider of the idea that American Schools Are Modeled After Factories and Treat Students Like Widgets. Schneider charges: “The claim has been repeated so often—by entrepreneurs, by policy wonks, by the secretary of education—that it has achieved a kind of truth status.  And increasingly, it is a rallying call for reform.  Our schools need reinvention, reformers assert.  If we want to promote real learning, we need to tear down the factory and rebuild around technologies of the Information Age.  It’s the stuff of great TED talks.  It just happens to be wrong.”

Schneider identifies some factory-like characteristics of American public schools.  There is “bulk-processing.”  Our schools serve approximately 50 million students who are clustered by age into groups.  And there are assembly-line kinds of problems: “The typical school curriculum, for example, precludes students from pursuing genuine interests at an individualized speed.  Perhaps most obviously, schools, like factories, are generally geared toward producing a fairly uniform product, rather than a series of custom-built objects d’art.”

But, Schneider continues: “The root causes of disengagement and shallow learning, as it turns out, aren’t design problems at all.  They’re problems inherent to the concept of schooling.  Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t.  Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking.  Finally young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else.  These are big problems that can’t be wished away or solved by new technologies.  They can, however, be ameliorated by great teaching.  And that’s what we should be focused on if we’re going to talk about improving learning outcomes.”

After he challenges the myth of the school as factory, Jack Schneider asks us to contemplate a very different metaphor: “(S)chools are much more like gardens than they are like factories. And great gardens aren’t the result of modernist design or entrepreneurial innovation. They are products of attention, devotion, and love. They are complex systems that demand our time and respond to our care.  And in a thousand different blooms, they reward us with their beauty.”