From the Daily: Democracy for Detroit schools

Sunday, February 21, 2016 - 6:42pm

Toilet water falling from the ceiling, mushrooms sprouting from the walls and black mold infestation are just some of the conditions that students and teachers have had to face on a daily basis in Detroit Public Schools. It is difficult to imagine that any city’s residents would allow their elected officials to treat their children with such indignity. But Detroit residents don’t even have the opportunity to make that choice, because Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has utilized the state’s financial emergency law to give a non-elected, state-appointed emergency manager practically complete control over DPS affairs. The events that have unfolded in recent weeks surrounding DPS are a reflection of a larger trend within the state government: Too much power is being concentrated in the hands of non-elected, state-appointed officials to the detriment of Michigan citizens.

In response to mass protests by DPS teachers and the Detroit Federation of Teachers lawsuit against DPS, Darnell Earley, the city's state-appointed emergency manager, announced this February he’ll leave the position Feb. 29. Earley was also the emergency manager for the city of Flint, a position from which he also resigned without issuing any sort of public apology. Furthermore, during his time in Detroit, Earley has consistently not listened to residents. Earley has criticized teachers who participated in sick-outs. After pursuing the lawsuit, DFT has also attempted to bring in its own health inspectors. However, DPS officials stopped these inspectors from entering all but one school building, saying DFT’s inspectors would “complicate the district's efforts to fully comply with state and local regulations.” Now state lawmakers are considering legislation to provide funding and revitalize the school district.

The trend of Snyder concentrating control of the city’s poorest areas in the hands of the unelected is unacceptable. Most alarming is that in recent months, Snyder’s emergency managers have essentially acted with impunity while the populations they governed suffered.

That’s not to say that serious financial reform like that which Detroit, Flint and others are undergoing won't come with sacrifices. However, on the exterior, Detroit seems like a city on the rise. New restaurants and young residents have moved downtown. The riverfront has been revitalized, a new hockey stadium is in the works and the Detroit auto show hit record-high attendance this past January with more than 800,000 visitors, the most it has seen in 12 years.

But an apparent contradiction lies in investing whatever it takes to revive Detroit’s urban core while ignoring the buildings crumbling around its most vulnerable residents. DPS teachers are the only ones doing anything constructive to raise awareness, but are being met with serious resistance. It’s easy to see why teachers are frustrated with administrators, especially because administrators are also using funds that could be used to fix schools to sue many of the teachers who have participated in sick-outs. Their reasoning: Sick-out protesters are depriving students of their right to attend school, adversely impacting students’ academic progress, depriving students of their breakfast and lunches, forcing parents and non-striking DPS employees to miss work and wasting taxpayer money.

Looking at photographs of the conditions of Detroit schools’ buildings, it is obvious that these conditions existed before the sick-outs, and are only going to get worse unless someone calls attention to them — which is exactly what teachers accomplished in holding sick-outs. Lack of administration funding for instructional materials adversely impacts each student’s right to an education, and it’s not a stretch of reason to conclude that a leaky cafeteria roof might deprive students of safe, healthy breakfasts and lunches.

The teachers participating in sick-outs should be applauded for their dedication. Earley and DPS officials should not be acting against the teachers, but instead in conjunction with them and DFT.

The demographics of districts with appointed emergency managers must also be called into question. Grosse Pointe, a 93.2-percent white town, is just 10 miles away from the 82.7-percent African-American Detroit, but its schools aren’t crumbling. DPS has failed administratively to provide adequate education for its students, but the implications of socioeconomic status and race cannot be ignored. The inequality between public school systems — not just in Grosse Pointe, but throughout the state — begs the question: Why are some students afforded top-notch instruction while others have to settle for substandard education?

Emergency managers in both Flint and Detroit were only accountable to numbers on a spreadsheet, and never to the actual human beings they governed. In the cases of Flint and DPS, it seems Earley is failing to recognize the tangible impacts his decisions are having on human lives. Snyder and the DPS administration need to realize that behind all the debt, behind all the money and behind all the problems are real students who deserve an education. It is possible to make a difference through kindness, empathy and compassion. If the people in power can remember that when they are making decisions, then Detroit will be one step closer to revitalization.

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