Opportunity to rethink our schools By Shea Howell


Opportunity to rethink our schools

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen,  May 22-28, 2011

 Roy Roberts began his first week as DPS Emergency Financial Manager striking a more reasonable note than his predecessor, Robert Bobb.  Like Bobb, Roberts talks of making the “tough calls,” “right-sizing this system, ”getting rid of “waste.”  But, unlike Bobb, Roberts said bluntly, “I don’t have to be a bully.” “I don’t have to come with a hatchet but should have a good scalpel.” Roberts even indicated that he is not interested in denigrating teachers, students or the elected school board.

 There is no question that Roberts will propose cuts and closings. But he seems to  recognize that his predecessor, with more limited powers, did more damage to the children of Detroit than any financial crisis.

 While the mainstream Detroit media loves to endlessly repeat reports of Detroit Public Schools as a “national disgrace,” it  refuses to provide any serious assessment of Robert Bobb, his proposals  or his approach.

 The New York Times offered a more critical assessment of Mr. Bobb’s performance. First, it  points out that when Bobb was appointed EFM,  the budget deficit was $200 million. Now that he is leaving, it is $327 million.

 Bobb attacked “wasteful bureaucrats. ” Yet he spent millions on financial consultants, got himself a $425,000 a year foundation-supported salary and created great instability. He developed a “plan” for school closings that paid no attention to schools, their individual performance or community support.  His refusal to respond to community, student and teacher concerns led to an increasingly hostile and confrontational atmosphere, culminating in the shameful arrest of high-performing teen moms who want to keep their school.

 Robert Bobb and his foundation friends also pushed charter schools as a solution to the educational crisis. He and they continue to do this despite the lack of evidence that charters do any better, and credible evidence that many do worse than public schools on the tests which Bobb embraces as essential.

 Nearly as many Detroit young people are in charter schools today as are in public schools. The Times reports, “Charter school students score about the same on state tests as Detroit district students, even though charters have fewer special education students (8 percent versus 17 percent in the district) and fewer poor children (65 percent get subsidized lunches versus 82 percent at district schools). It’s hard to decide whether children are better off under these ‘reforms’ or whether they’re just being moved around more.”

 The Times’ final indictment of Mr. Bobb’s performance was that he “has set off a vicious cycle undermining even good schools. The more schools he closes to save money, the more parents grow discouraged and pull their children out. The fewer the children, the less the state aid, so Mr. Bobb closes more schools.”

EFM Roy Roberts has an opportunity to repudiate more than the tone and tactics of EFM Bobb.

 But the hint that he might do so has sent the local mainstream media into fits.

Nolan Finley of the Detroit News is fearful that Roberts may try to “save” the district when it should be “dismantled.” Using terms that evoke flood, hurricane and earthquake, Finley argues for “oblivion” for the “hopelessly incompetent.” Saying that Roberts “doesn’t have to kill DPS in one stroke,” Finley clearly  considers New Orleans lucky that it had Katrina to accomplish the otherwise difficult process of privatizing education.

 Such reactions are foolish because they block the kind of serious thinking we now urgently need to create a really new and  functioning educational system.

 We welcome Robert’s willingness to separate himself from Bobb. We encourage him to rethink education by looking to those in the city who are working with children, community partners and parents who are creating schools  that  unleash the creativity of their students and teachers by  engaging them in building strong neighborhoods.