by Paul Abowd
Throughout the last decade of upheaval in the Detroit Public Schools, various state-appointed managers of the district have reminded us it could be worse. And so Detroiters heard from Robert Bobb and his public relations team again in March for the rollout of a strange plan for “Renaissance” in DPS. Up to 59 schools could be closed in two years, and dozens will be converted to privately-run, non-union charter schools.
In his announcement Bobb pointed out, again, that it could be worse: the state’s Deficit Reduction Plan called on the district to close 70 schools and raise class high schools sizes to 60. Instead, Bobb has charted a path his PR team admits is “radical but necessary.” DPS has contracted with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to evaluate bids from charter companies to take over control of up to 45 schools.
Eighteen schools, including Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for pregnant and parenting teen mothers, will close this summer if charter operators do not bid to run them.
Twenty-seven more “low-performing” schools will be open to bids by charter operators and community groups. If no charter is chosen, they will undergo what’s called a “turnaround,” during which teachers and staff are asked to re-apply for their jobs, and schools can come under private management.
Meanwhile, the district is asking parents and students to gear up for another chapter of forced migration. Fourteen schools will close and move into eight newly-constructed buildings in the next year and a half. Four school communities are being told to move in the middle of next school year.
Dizzy yet? That might be the goal.
One thing is clear—this is an unprecedented moment of privatization in Detroit Public Schools nearing the scale of post-Katrina school restructuring that decimated New Orleans’ educational unions and left a handful of public schools in its wake.
NACSA is the same firm that was hired to “rehabilitate” New Orleans schools. They are also the same firm that crafted Chicago’s “Renaissance 2010” reform plan to replace district schools with 100 new charter schools by the end of the decade.
This time its a $327 million deficit we need to get out from under. But closing more schools means lower enrollment, which means lower state funding levels, which ensures future deficits, which will necessitate more closures. By Bobb’s own admission, this plan does not ensure long-term financial stability. This is the eternal state of fiscal emergency.
The Detroit Federation of Teachers, which protested the plan in April, illustrated the point: “Two years ago, the district had a deficit of $219 million, or about $1 million per school. With DPS reduced to 100 schools, the current deficit of $327 million will be over $3 million per school.”
But DFT President Keith Johnson has not offered an alternative vision, telling his members via YouTube to “wait and see what happens.”
Bobb and company decry the poor state of the very schools they’ve been claiming to reform for years. Each reform promises a new day through austerity and results in more privatization and fewer programs. After ten years of being in charge of reform, the effect of those reforms should be considered part of the problem.
Though DPS is in disaster-mode by most accounts, Bobb and friends are likely celebrating in private. It is disaster, after all, that they need. Bobb’s endgame closely resembles the vision staked out in 2009 by the “Excellent Schools” plan. Led by the Skillman Foundation and cheered by Bobb, Mayor Bing, and local charter evangelists, the plan resolved to open 70 new charter schools in the city by 2020.
Detroit may be the most intense site of school privatzation, but similar attempts have been underway in Los Angeles. On three separate occasions since 2009, the L.A. school district has opened dozens of district schools to charter school bidding. Unlike in Detroit, the school board (L.A.’s can still make decisions) is accepting bids from not only private companies but also the union, parent and community groups. Union and community groups have organized proposals to keep these schools public and have won a vast majority of the bids.
The dictatorial Bobb regime has opened only a slim entry point for teachers, students and parents in Detroit to organize their own proposals to run these district schools—eventually. The NACSA, is rushing out a privately-funded Request for Proposals to run 18 schools, but only existing charter companies with at least two schools in the state are eligible. Deadlines are May 2. Decisions to charter or close these schools will come a month later.
Another 27 schools will be open to community-based charter proposals in 2012, but only if those groups form a board of directors and undergo a DPS-sponsored training.
Only private comanies will bid on Catherine Ferguson Academy. Teachers, students, and the principal have held two all-school assemblies to gather forces and prepare petitions to present to DPS. Students and teachers are asking for community support on May 3, when CFA and several other schools get 20 minutes to plead their case.
Teacher Nicole Conaway says it is unclear why CFA is being targeted. School enrollment is not drastically below the building’s capacity, and the program gets most of its funding through grants for “at-risk” students. Not to mention DPS would be closing an irreplacable urban agriculture program.
The school community has decided that both closure and conversion to charter are unacceptable options. They are organizing direct actions, including a building occupation, ahead of the decision date to keep CFA open as public school. “We know that Bobb may not listen to rational arguments—that won’t be enough to stay open,” says Conaway.