Democratic Debate

Democratic Debate
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, May 2, 2010

Detroit is not alone in facing the need to cut spending on education. Across the country school districts are warning that as many as 300,000 teachers face layoffs. Looking at the combined impact of slashed state support for education, reduced property taxes and the absence of the stimulus dollars that last year helped postpone this situation, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “This is a real emergency. What we are trying to avert is an education catastrophe.” Even the most affluent districts are talking about school closings, larger classes and program reduction.

Detroit was one of the first cities to struggle with these deep structural changes. Unlike many of our suburban neighbors, the city reacted to falling property values, declining population and lack of state support by increasing our school taxes. For more than 40 years Detroiters have supported every single mileage request. In a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty Detroiters just passed a $500 million increase handily.

This long-standing support for our children and the decades of work that have gone on within the Detroit community to provide innovative educational experiences as resources were disappearing, should enable Detroiters to lead the country in how to face this catastrophe.

However, instead of engaging Detroiters, educators, youth and community groups in thoughtful and democratic discussions about how to best address our problems, Financial Manger Bobb has cut off public dialogue, assumed absolute powers, challenged court restrictions on these powers, and moved to intimidation tactics. After losing his effort to get the court to lift the injunction on his school closing plans, Manager Bobb put a hold on federally-financed afterschool programs, warned he would cancel summer school, and laid off 2000 teachers.

Bobb and the foundations that fund him have no intention of meeting with the elected school board or creating a process of citizen engagement. Of all the goals they have cited for education, none include strengthening democracy by engaging Detroit residents in resolving the crisis. This is because any democratic process begins with questioning the basic premise behind the Bobb/Foundation schemes for revamping our educational system.

Bobb and the foundations evidently believe that privatizing education, eliminating teachers unions and shifting to a totally test-based achievement system will somehow result in a “better” education. This belief, promoted for over a decade by the Bush administration under the name of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and revamped by Arne Duncan as Race to the Top (RTTT) has failed to achieve any of the promised results but has created a lot of damage along the way.

Bobb knew that in any democratic discussion of the direction he wants to take our schools, he would be confronted with the conclusion of Dr. Diane Ravitch, the architect of NCLB while serving in the George H.W. Bush administration from 1991-1993.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Dr. Ravitch renounced this effort. She commented, “As No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) accountability regime took over the nation’s schools under President George W. Bush and more and more charter schools were launched, I supported these initiatives. But over time, I became disillusioned with the strategies that once seemed so promising.” This is because “accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else.” 

In this article, as well as in her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Ravitch concludes: “On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students who are more knowledgeable, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.”

 Honest debate often leads to a change of mind and heart. The limitations of Manager Bobb’s vision deserve discussion. He is accountable for the proposals he represents to us as solutions. The citizens of Detroit have a right and responsibility to be fully engaged in decisions about the education of our children and the development of our community.



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