In this photo taken Jan. 14, Pam Barnes, right and Asher Huey  of the American Federation of Teachers, walk by some missing ceiling tiles while touring Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics Science and Technology in Detroit  to look at some of the poor conditions that have prompted sickouts by Detroit public school teachers. (Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press via AP)

 

The biggest news in Michigan in recent months has been the severe crisis over the lead-contaminated water in Flint that has poisoned residents, but the Detroit public school district has generated some of its own.

Detroit teachers have been staging a series of sickouts to call attention to the appalling conditions of the public schools, and the teachers union recently filed a lawsuit which says  that  conditions inside the schools are so unhealthy that the rights of students — who are predominately African American and poor — are being violated.

Darnell Earley, who was appointed emergency manager of the Detroit public schools by Gov. Rick Snyder a year ago (after Earley served as the emergency manager of Flint) is stepping down at the end of the month, and there is a package of school “reform” bills introduced by Republicans in the state House which, among other things, would cut educators’ collective bargaining rights, reduce retirement benefits for new teachers and link teacher pay to questionable performance standards.

The bills are supposedly meant to improve the troubled Detroit school district, but “supposedly” is the key word here, at least according to the editorial board of the Detroit Free Press, which wrote an editorial as blistering as any I can remember reading. The editorial aims its vitriol at  House Republicans in Michigan, but disregard toward the well-being of children is common among some school reformers around the country who have long ignored the conditions in which kids live and attend school while pushing standardized test-based “accountability” systems to improve student achievement. This is the kind of thinking that has driven school reform for years.

The newspaper’s editorial board chief, Stephen Henderson, gave me permission to republish it, so here it is:

What is the state House of Representatives thinking?

Wait, that one’s too easy. The House is thinking that because Detroit Public Schools’ needs are so urgent — the state’s largest school district could run out of cash in April if the Legislature doesn’t act on a reform plan mulled by Gov. Rick Snyder for almost a year — this is a fine time to tie a raft of noxious, anti-union, anti-Detroit addenda to a reform package the Legislature must pass in order to keep the district’s doors open.

So we’ll ask a different question: Are the Republican leaders of the state House of Representatives so craven, so insensible to the fact that their work affects children, that they’d risk the futures of the 47,000 souls enrolled in DPS with a slate of ideologically driven “reforms” sure to divide any vote along party lines?

Sadly, we know the answer to that.

The House’s DPS reform bills sticks to the “old company, new company” model advanced by Snyder. The old company would keep DPS’s name, elected school board and operating millage, and exist solely to pay off the district’s debt, while the new company would receive the district’s per-pupil allowance and an additional state subsidy, and would educate Detroit’s children.

But changes larded on by Republican lawmakers mean this legislation would essentially create a school district in Detroit with lower standards than any district in the state.

By gutting some provisions of the state law that requires collective bargaining for some portions of teacher contracts, by allowing the new district to hire teachers with “alternate” certification, by tying teacher pay and benefits to nebulously defined performance standards, the bills’ sponsors are saying that Detroit’s children, of all the children in the state, deserve less. Much less. Detroit kids, it seems, don’t deserve the same quality of education as kids in West Bloomfield or Grosse Pointe.

The state Senate introduced its own DPS reform package earlier this month, sponsored by state Sen. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, who had worked closely with Snyder. That plan wasn’t perfect: An education commission that would have had oversight over both charter and traditional public schools was stripped out of the plan.

Neither plan has won the approval of Detroit lawmakers. Nor should they.

Why is Detroit different than any other district in the state? We can hear the chorus of response: Because of Detroit’s track record. Because of its history of financial ruin. Because DPS is failing.

It is an undisputed fact that the district has spent the bulk of this century under the guidance of a state-appointed emergency manager. The state bears both moral and legal responsibility for the district’s hefty debts — much of the district’s short-term debt, after all, was incurred during that period. State intervention is predicated on the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education for every Michigan child. State intervention came with a promise to fix DPS. But state intervention, indisputably, made the problem worse.

The “reforms” added to the House plan bring the district no closer to academic or financial health. And if this is the kind of disdain Detroit can expect from the Legislature, then all hope may be lost.

Here’s our challenge to the lawmakers championing these plans: If these reforms are destined to ensure excellence, pass them statewide.

Yeah, that’s what we thought.