Detroit schools takeover approved by Michigan legislature

By Walter Gilberti and Lina Jones
6 April 1999

Following the passage last week, by the Michigan House of Representatives, of a final version of the "school reform bill" aimed at taking over the Detroit Public School system, Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer moved quickly to remove the incumbent school board. In what one newspaper columnist described metaphorically as the "night-of-the-long-knives," the mayor demanded the resignation of the entire outgoing board last Friday, within hours of Governor John Engler's signing of the reform legislation. By the following Wednesday, members of the defunct board had vacated their offices and turned in their keys to the mayor.

While the new hand-picked board has not yet adopted any policies, its composition confirms that Archer, Engler and the state legislature are moving to tailor the public school system to the needs of big business. The seven-member board includes William Beckham, the president of the business-oriented New Detroit and an adviser to former US President Jimmy Carter; Frank Fountain, vice-president of DaimlerChrysler; Pam Aguirre, CEO of Mexican Industries of Michigan, one of the largest minority-owned auto parts manufacturers; Detroit Deputy Mayor Freeman Hendrix; Dr. Glenda Price, president of Marygrove College; and Marvis Coffield, director of a non-profit social service agency called Operation Get Down who also owns a small business.

The seventh member of the board is Arthur Ellis, the state superintendent of education and an ally of Republican Governor Engler. Ellis previously served as a head of the state Department of Commerce and president of Central Michigan University, a university which has established a series of semi-private charter schools throughout the state. Ellis's presence gives the governor veto power over the choice of a new chief executive for the school system, since the legislation provides that the CEO's selection must be unanimous. In addition, the board is answerable to a five-member state committee, headed by state treasurer Mark Murray, that will oversee the Detroit reform effort.

The board will appoint the CEO or "receiver" of the school system who will have all the authority previously held by the elected school board: to hire and fire top administrators, spend money, negotiate contracts, and even terminate contracts, with the exception of collective bargaining agreements, entered into by the current board.

The speed of Archer's actions speaks to the growing alarm of Detroit-area big business over a school system which produces many students who can barely read and write, and hence require expensive retraining when they enter a corporate work force. Under conditions of a growing labor shortage, corporate Detroit has become dissatisfied with the performance of school board members notorious for petty patronage concerns, kickbacks and other forms of corruption.

A series of financial scandals, coupled with deteriorating conditions, has made the outgoing school board the target of protests by parents, school employees and students, which threaten to spill over into wider protests against social conditions in Detroit. Big business is concerned, moreover, that such a discredited board would be unable to impose the necessary cutbacks and concessions in upcoming contracts with the unions representing 20,000 school employees.

Supporters of the school board, including many black nationalists, denounced the takeover on the grounds that it disenfranchised Detroit residents, the vast majority of whom are black. Some who have ties to the old political machine of Mayor Coleman Young denounced Archer, who is black, as a stooge for the "white power structure." However, their racialist appeals found virtually no support from parents, school employees or students. By appointing five blacks and one Hispanic to fill his six seats on the board, and especially by selecting Coffield, who has close ties to the black nationalists, Archer was attempting to placate these critics.

In recent weeks, the Coalition of Public School Unions representing teachers and school employees, and headed by the Detroit Federation of Teachers, has come out in favor of the takeover plan. DFT President John Elliott and other union officials are moving toward a deal in which the unions would agree to a five-year contract in exchange for a pledge of no privatizations by Archer's school board. The unions had complained that despite their years of imposing concessions on their members the school board was moving to circumvent the union bureaucracy and privatize operations.

Detroit is the latest of a number of cities with impoverished neighborhoods to opt for state takeover of the schools. Other cities that have carried out such a move are Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Pike County, Kentucky. Under such plans, public school systems must compete for funds allocated for public education with either charter schools or voucher systems. In Detroit and Milwaukee legislation has been passed that either encourages the expansion of charter schools, as in the Michigan legislature, or subsidizes the transfer of students from public to private and parochial schools, as is being done in Milwaukee.

These initiatives, in the final analysis, can be described as a kind of corporate downsizing for education. Adequately functioning schools, that is, schools, that show student improvement on standardized tests, will receive the lion's share of the funding, while nonperforming schools will either be shut down, with their students and staff dispersed, or allowed to deteriorate. Such policies ignore the social issues that underlie the inability of inner city schools to effectively educate children. While school reform and takeovers, like the one in effect in Chicago, have been highly touted by Archer and Engler, there has been little improvement for the poorest and most at risk students living in these districts.

According to Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, vouchers and school takeovers are a "quick fix." "There's no evidence," he said, "they make much difference. The problems of urban schools are really rooted in families and communities and teaching staffs. These kinds of reform don't change any of that. Big city schools and the people in them are desperate and trying anything right now."

Orfield said outside intervention does have an impact on corruption and incompetence in urban school management, but "once they get past that, though, the people leading these takeovers don't have any good answers. They're doing whatever is fashionable at the moment."

Michael Preston of the National School Board Association was even more categorical, commenting, "What you'll find in looking at all the cases that have happened so far is that there is no effect on the improvement of student achievement. In other words, school takeovers are more about power, money and control than about student achievement."

Educational problems in Detroit and in cities throughout the US are bound up with increasing poverty, the elimination of spending for social programs and the growth of the working poor. A veteran Detroit school bus driver described these conditions and their effect on school children to the World Socialist Web Site.

"Some of the children I pick up come from horrible conditions. Their parents don't have jobs and some live in houses that are literally condemned and boarded up. They come from neighborhoods that are run-down. I have one child on my bus who cries because he is so hungry. I bring him sandwiches. How can children learn under these conditions? The behavior problems many have are due to the environment they come from.

"Then these students come to schools that don't have enough textbooks, teachers or toilet paper in the bathrooms. Some of the buildings are not fit for children because of the filth, broken windows, collapsing ceilings. This has gotten worse as the school board has cut back on employees and reduced the budget.

"If the schools were really to be reformed the living conditions of the children would have to be better. They would have to get three meals a day, have decent housing and get counseling and tutoring. They need recreation, art and music, and more teachers and assistants to give the children the attention they need. That would be the environment for students to learn.

"But that's not going to come out of the state takeover. The people Archer appointed have interests in their own corporations. Some of these companies, like Chrysler, are responsible for the poverty in Detroit because they shut down plants and demanded tax breaks. Archer didn't put any common parents on the board. He didn't set up a committee to look at the horrible social conditions in Detroit. This is never mentioned."