Detroit teachers are sick of the schools crisis

May 12, 2016

Nicole Colson explains why angry Detroit teachers took action with another sickout.

WITH THE school system in financial crisis and teachers being told they need to shoulder the burden, Detroit's public school educators fought back with a two-day mass sickout on May 2-3.

Their example of resistance comes amid a series of attacks on working-class and poor residents, including the city's threat in early May to begin shutting off water to as many as 20,000 homes that have defaulted on water bills.

The crisis in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system can be chalked up to another school system that's "broke on purpose," as the Chicago Teachers Union has described the situation it faces. It comes in the context of a city where government at all levels, but particularly the state government, has been bent on dismantling public services in the name of austerity.

The two-day sickout earlier this month shut down 94 of the district's 97 schools, with more than 1,500 teachers calling in sick. The action was in response to the news that DPS wouldn't be able to pay employees who are supposed to get checks year-round, and not just during the school year, after June 30. Around two-thirds of DPS employees defer a portion of their income to cover summer expenses--if DPS follows through on the threat, they would have lost wages for as many as 37 working days.

Detroit teachers demonstrated at school district headquarters
Detroit teachers demonstrated at school district headquarters

Though Detroit teachers have staged other sickouts and job actions this year and last, this is the first to be officially backed by the 2,600-member Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). As DFT Interim President Ivy Bailey put it, teachers were left no choice but to take action.

"There's a basic agreement in America: When you put in a day's work, you'll receive a day's pay. DPS (Detroit Public Schools) is breaking that deal," she said. "Teachers want to be in the classroom giving children a chance to learn and reach their potential. Unfortunately, by refusing to guarantee that we will be paid for our work, DPS is effectively locking our members out of the classrooms."

In January, teachers timed a sickout to coincide with a visit to Detroit by Barack Obama in order to highlight the deplorable conditions that Detroit kids learn in--including schools infested with rats and mice, with broken heating and cooling systems, faulty plumbing and holes in ceilings.

Teachers returned to work after a DPS administrator assured the union that teachers would be paid for the full year. But the crisis in Detroit Public Schools is far from over.

THERE ARE a number of factors that have contributed to DPS's financial mess. Facing yearly shortfalls, the district kept operations going by relying on short-term loans for several years in a row. But DPS hasn't been able to repay those loans, meaning the debt has been rolled over into the following year's budget multiple times. Today, according to the Citizens Research Council, 41 cents out of every dollar meant to be spent on Detroit students is instead spent on servicing that debt.

But the Detroit crisis also reflects similar questions facing teachers' unions and school districts across the U.S., as politicians try to move against the unions, scrap teachers' pensions and privatize education through funneling of public dollars to charter schools.

A sharp decline in Detroit's population has meant significantly less revenue for DPS. According to the New York Times, DPS has "just 46,000 students, down from 167,000 in 2000 and more than 200,000 in the early 1980s." The state government has, in turn, reduced its per-pupil funding of DPS, plus the local tax base for funds on the city level has also shrunk.

The proliferation of charter schools has also diverted money from the public school system. Today, more than half of Detroit students who attend publicly funded schools are in charter schools.

According to a report from the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, the average salary for a Michigan public school teacher dropped for the fourth year in a row in 2014-15. Not surprisingly, such conditions have led to a teacher shortage--one the state has done little to address.

At a gathering at the Fellowship Chapel church during the sickout, parent Wytrice Harris read an open letter from her daughter Imani, a DPS student. In it, Imani wrote:

Everyone's so worried about how I'm losing my education from four sickout days. No one's taking into account the fact that I went almost a full semester without a real English teacher.

Let's count up those days and see just how much education I missed from those months, while the powers that be took their sweet time finding a teacher that was actually willing to step foot into DPS due to the instability and lack of value of teachers by this state-run district.

BEYOND SHRINKING population and the siphoning of public money to charter schools, Detroit teachers are rightly asking how a school district that was put under emergency management by the state in 2009 can now be facing financial collapse. Where has the money gone?

As the New York Times wrote, the series of state-appointed emergency managers--both to oversee the Detroit schools and, later, to take over whole cities like Detroit and Flint--have been a disaster:

Those managers have come up with plan after plan, and things have only gotten worse. Darnell Earley was the state-appointed overseer for barely a year, after serving as emergency manager of the City of Flint; he was appointed to both posts by [Michgan's Republican governor Rick] Snyder. He abruptly resigned from his Detroit schools position early this year, under fire over Flint's water contamination crisis.

As reported last January on the heels of another teacher sickout:

At DPS, Earley is only the latest in a series of financial managers--dating back to the former governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, by the way--to strip power from local authorities, while failing to improve the deteriorating conditions of schools. In fact, the system's debt burden has continued to skyrocket--while teachers have gone without a raise or step increase in 10 years and suffered continuous concessions, wrote Detroit teacher Nina Chacker at the Solidarity website.

DPS administrators have been caught engaging in illegal activity. In March, 13 current and former DPS administrators were hit with charges of conspiracy to commit bribery for allegedly taking kickbacks in return for steering contracts worth $2.7 million to a businessman--the same kind of scandal that brought down Chicago's former schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

GIVEN THIS backdrop, it's easy to understand why Detroit teachers felt they had to take action once again this month.

According to the union, teachers had previously been told by current DPS emergency manager Judge Steven Rhodes that some $48.7 million allocated by the state legislature in April to fund the district would cover summer pay. At a press conference called during the sickout, Rhodes denied this.

The union also says that money to pay teachers who elect to have some of their pay set aside for the summer months was supposed to have been put in escrow. School officials, however, won't--or can't--say where it went.

Nor are there likely to be answers anytime soon: State government officials are refusing to do an audit of the school system, on the grounds that it would cost $500,000. The state won't pay, and the district can't afford to.

But the cost of an audit would be small change in the long run. The state Senate has passed a $720 million aid package to enable a bankruptcy-style restructuring of the district, though it doesn't contain a guaranteed funding mechanism.

An alternative version of the aid package passed this month in the state House, which is dominated by Republicans, is a disaster, say critics--heavy on provisions designed to punish teachers and undermine the union's ability to stand up for themselves and their students. While the proposal would fully fund teachers' wages, it also contains a provision to fine teachers one day's pay for every day they are found to have engaged in a strike.

Additionally, according to the Michigan AFT:

The House package also provides aid in both the short and long term ($72 million per year to the district, capped at $500 million, along with a $33 million emergency loan) that is inadequate for the school system to pay down its debt and continue to operate. And it does not recognize any existing bargaining units; staff would be stripped of the protections and benefits of their contracts. In contrast, the Senate bills would maintain worker contracts.

Moreover, the House does not immediately return local control to the district, something that Detroit stakeholders have called essential to long-term success. Instead, the House bills would delay the process by establishing an appointed school board and empowering the Detroit Financial Review Commission to select the superintendent. And these bills include overly prescriptive language, paving the way for the hiring of noncertified teachers and establishing a merit pay system that ties pay to student standardized test scores for all new hires.

As student Imani Harris wrote in her open letter, the hiring of noncertified teachers wouldn't be tolerated in a wealthier suburban district. "This would never happen at a school in Bloomfield Hills. Is it because we're Black?...Oh no, I've got it: it's because we're just poor Black kids from Detroit who don't have a future anyway."

YET IN his own "Open letter to the Detroit community," emergency manager Steven Rhodes blasted teachers for their sickout, proclaiming, "It diminished, on the threshold of collective bargaining, our productive and mutually beneficial relationship with DFT leadership."

"Arguably so did using the specter of payless paydays to spark a chain reaction that would a) rouse teachers to action to b) pressure resentful Republicans into cutting a deal that would cost the state far less than the district's outstanding liabilities of at least $3 billion," replied Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes.

Gov. Snyder--one of the most hated public officials in America after having overseen the poisoning of Flint--likewise had the gall to lecture teachers that the sickout was "not a constructive act with respect to getting legislation through."

But the legislation that Snyder and the Republicans are driving through can only be considered "constructive" if you think the state needs to punish teachers and further shortchange Detroit kids: As the DFT's Bailey, American Federation of Teachers-Michigan President David Hecker and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a joint statement:

The partisan bills forced through in the dead of night by Speaker Kevin Cotter are some of the most despicable anti-student, anti-public school, anti-teacher provisions we've seen in America. Make no mistake: These bills discriminate against Detroit's children--who are overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged children and children of color--and are designed explicitly to punish teachers who speak up on behalf of their students and themselves.

At the core of the fight around Detroit schools is the wider social crisis facing the city, whose working-class population has been decimated in the drive for austerity.

Even a service as basic and essential as water can no longer be relied on. In Flint, the decision of the state-appointed emergency manager to switch the city's water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River--and the resulting cover-up by state officials--has poisoned the water system, and there is no simple solution for fixing the damage.

In Detroit, another kind of water crisis is unfolding. In early May, the city began notifying thousands residents with overdue bills that they faced service cutoffs. At least 1,860 homes have had water service interrupted since the beginning of the month.

Officials, downplaying this hardship, say that 85 percent of those homes had service restored in a day, and that more than half of the 6,000 property owners tagged for shutoff as of May 10 had either made a payment or enrolled in a payment plan.

But in 21st century America, there's no reason why working class and poor people should have to worry about paying for the water in their taps--setting aside whether it's even safe to drink or will poison their children--any more than they should fear that their kids' schools are crumbling around them.

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