by Nina Chacker
January 23, 2016
The problems in the Detroit Public Schools that have been highlighted by recent teacher sickouts are not new. The district’s reputation is built on shabby buildings, oversized classes, and frustrated teachers. The schools are under resourced and the impacts of poverty continue to shift the focus away from learning, as the immediate needs of the students have to come first. The district has been placed under state control for the last several years. A steady rotation of emergency managers has been appointed to steer the schools in a “better” direction, stripping away all power and relevance of the elected school board.
Unsurprisingly, conditions have continued to go downhill as the district’s accumulated debt has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Detroit teachers have not received a raise or even a step increase in ten years but have taken countless cuts. Schools have been shut down or sold off to charter companies, creating oversized classrooms, and this problem has intensified as teachers have given up and moved on to different jobs. There are over 200 teaching vacancies in the district and that number is steadily increasing.
The current state of the schools is not nearly as unsettling as Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for the near future. Legislation was recently introduced that would reframe DPS as an “old company,” and create a “new company” to replace it. The old company would retain the school board and be responsible solely for paying off the $515 million of debt that the emergency managers have managed to accrue; when that process was completed the district would be dissolved. The new company would run the schools under a board appointed by the governor and mayor, and one can only imagine how long they would choose to keep most of the public schools around when given the chance to open more for-profit charter schools.
On December 1, teachers began a series of rolling sickouts to protest the current teaching and learning conditions of the Detroit Public Schools and the anticipated changes to come. A few schools would close throughout the week without much announcement. Steve Conn, former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, who was removed from office and expelled from the union only a few months after being elected, has taken credit for many of the sickouts, claiming that one of the goals was to reinstate him as president. In fact, the majority of teachers have participated in the sickouts despite his attempts to coopt, not because of them. Teachers have self-organized from building to building around the working conditions they could no longer tolerate.
The sickouts were driven by the membership of the union, and while the leadership has remained supportive of the participants, they did not condone or help to coordinate the actions. The sickouts gained national traction, as teachers began circulating pictures of their rundown schools on social media and enumerating the ongoing budget cuts that have made it impossible to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Darnell Earley, the current emergency manager of DPS, held press conferences criticizing the participants for depriving students of time in the classroom. He failed to acknowledge the circumstances that have forced countless teachers out of the district, leaving many students in oversized classrooms or under the watch of uncertified subs. Letters were sent out to warn people who called in an absence on a sickout day that their pay could be docked if they did not provide doctor’s note, a small threat compared to the greater repercussions of remaining complacent indefinitely.
On January 11 a call was made for a mass sickout which ultimately caused over 60 schools to shut down. The momentum continued through Wednesday. The next week was spent gearing up for January 20, when President Obama was scheduled to be in town for the Auto Show. Of the district’s 96 schools, 88 closed, and teachers went downtown to rally. By what would have been the end of the school day, it was announced that the district had filed injunctions against 28 defendants who were being accused of organizing illegal strikes and adversely impacting students and parents. Included were the Detroit Federation of Teachers, former DFT president Steve Conn, current interim DFT president Ivy Bailey, and a couple dozen teachers. The request for a temporary restraining order against them was quickly denied and all parties have been ordered to appear for a show cause hearing on Monday.
If the conditions DPS students are facing every day was a secret, it was not well-kept. While there has been a national undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the shoddy accommodations for some of the country’s most vulnerable children, the public outcry has been a more recent development. DPS teachers reached their breaking point during the same period in which the water crisis in Flint plastered the media. The connection between the crises the two Michigan cities are facing was not difficult to make—DPS emergency manager Darnell Earley was also the emergency manager of Flint and responsible for the fiasco that has poisoned the city’s residents for life.
Governor Snyder and EM Earley have been unable to sway the public into believing that they have any regard for the well-being of Michigan’s children. They have made a few feeble attempts to control their narrative, such as censoring the evidence that could have indicated an earlier awareness of the lead in Flint’s water or attempting to intimidate teachers who stand up for their schools. The only success of their actions lies in providing people with concrete examples of the disastrous impacts of running cities and school districts like businesses. Those who expect us to absorb the damage while they carry out the neoliberal agenda of the ruling class cannot be trusted to make decisions in our best interests.
Nina Chacker is a public school teacher in Detroit and a member of Solidarity.