Eminem's acclaimed Super Bowl advertisement for Chrysler told the world that despite what you've heard, Detroit is making a comeback. Tell that to the city's children, because the State of Michigan has sounded the death knell for Detroit Public Schools. DPS's Emergency Financial Manager (EFM), Robert Bobb, has received approval for his plan to shut down half of the city's public schools over the next two years, raising remaining school class sizes to 60 students. The decision could be the tipping point that pushes Michigan into Wisconsin-style protesting.
Bobb's solution addresses a $327 million budget deficit and will reduce the current 142 schools in the district down to 72 by the 2012-13 school year. The plan will likely drive more families out of the Detroit, setting up a domino effect of even more financial problems for the schools.
Steve Conn, a 25-year-veteran teacher at Detroit's Cass Technical High School, is heavily involved in plans to march through the state capital, Lansing, today at noon with teachers, parents, students, and other public education allies. The planned protest targets education budget cuts, the school closings, and a bill that will expand the number of EFM positions in the state.
If the bill passes, it "will allow the state to appoint an EFM over any school district, city or town that is in a financial deficit," says Conn. EFM's have the power to fire entire school boards, change pay and benefits and eliminate union contracts, all without any public debate. When financial times are tough, as they are now in many low-income communities, EFM's can decide to sell off or close libraries, schools and other public buildings, and they're only answerable to the governor. Conn says such a system position "replaces democracy with tyranny."
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes the city's mayor, Dave Bing, should run the schools. "Detroit desperately needs all hands on deck and desperately needs to keep the reforms going," Duncan said. "I think the children of Detroit deserve better than what they have received for a while. And I just don't see how the city could ever regain its greatness if it doesn't have a great set of public schools."
Despite the current situation, Conn says he's proud that Detroit's students are also making their voices heard. Last week saw three student walkouts at Southeastern High School over education cuts. Students at Communications and Media Arts High School, ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation's best high schools, also walked out last Tuesday after the district took a number of teachers out of the classroom, increasing class sizes to as many as 50 students.
"As a teacher, I'm glad our students are mobilizing," says Conn. "It's united everybody and brought the young people into the conversation. Adults think these kids don't have an opinion, but they do, and we need to listen to them."