Budgeting away public education by Shea Howell


Budgeting away public education

By Shea Howell

  This week Roy Roberts, the new Emergency Financial Manger of Detroit Public Schools, issued his first budget proposal to the state.  A final budget is due June 30.  Given his short time on the job, this budget understandably reflects the heavy hand of his predecessor, Bob Bobb. While this may explain some of the shortcomings of the new EFM- approach, there are deeper issues for us to consider.

 First, the proposal continues down the path of privatization of schools. It proposes 45 new charter schools, closing 20 additional schools and ultimately maintaining about 70 of the “best performing” ones.

 This is simply the planned diminishment of public responsibility. It shifts public dollars into the hands of often for- profit corporations who intend to make money under the promise of educating our children. Currently there are nearly as many students in charter schools as in DPS. The new plan is likely to shift the balance toward charters.

 This move continues without any acknowledgement of the national research demonstrating that charters do no better and often do worse than their public counterparts. More research is emerging to inform us  that while charters pay teachers less than public schools, they play managers more.

  Nor is there any discussion of the distinctions between approaches by charters: for profit enterprises, non-profit organizations and community-based charters. When the president of the American Federation of Teachers first proposed charters, they were thought of as opportunities for educators to develop innovative, locally-based new practices. The current charters operating in Michigan are a far cry from that original vision

 The fact that Detroit Association of Black Organizations, a group that currently is operating a school under a charter with a 3% graduation rate, proposed to take over the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school with a 97% graduation rate, shows just how out of wack the chartering system is.

 Second, the release of the budget draft offers no understanding of how much the crisis in our educational system requires new and imaginative thinking and the engagement of the total community. Instead it begins by claiming that this current budgets reflects “community input.” The first lines say, “Following broad community input, including more than 40 community meetings, Detroit Public Schools today announced changes to the district’s school consolidation and closure plan.”

 This is precisely the kind of lead-in to major decisions that increases distrust of the EFM. It claims community input to legitimize decisions that the community opposes.

 This tactic is one that Detroiters are especially sensitive to these days. It is at the heart of the opposition to the Detroit Works Project. Many people fear that, like the decisions around the schools, “community engagement” will be invoked to justify actions that are not in the best interests of the majority of people in the city.

 Further this budget evades the real crisis in the education of our children. Long before we faced financial issues, many young people realized that the educational system was preparing them for either prison or jobs that no longer existed. It was not preparing them to be imaginative, thoughtful, self-confident individuals, ready to assume their  responsibilities in a democracy.

 This crisis was recognized first by those educators and young people who were rejecting traditional public schools. It sparked creative, collaborative approaches by students, teachers, administrators and community members. Some of the best “alternative education” began to emerge within DPS, offering visionary place-based education.

 Now under the guise of budget cuts, we are being told these schools are “too expensive.” 

 If Mr. Roberts really intends to do more than preside over the disappearance of public education in Detroit, he needs to do much better than this budget suggests.