Detroit Public Schools Fight to Stay Open Amid Public Worker Attacks

When Robert Bobb proposes shutting down over 40 public schools and handing them over to private entities as a cost-cutting measure, the question is: at what cost?

By Julianne Hing Apr 26, 2011

In March, Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder signed its sweeping anti-worker Public Act 4, which grants state-appointed emergency financial managers unilateral power to take drastic actions that they feel could help a locality avoid bankruptcy. Those actions include firing local elected officials, breaking public workers’ contracts (and shutting down their collective bargaining rights), seizing and selling assets, and eliminating services. One month into the post-Public Act 4 era, Detroit public workers are already getting a taste of life where workers’ rights are easily jettisoned and corporate takeovers are a constant, imminent possibility. Unfortunately, Detroit’s public schools are well accustomed by now to these attacks on the public sphere.

Detroit Public Schools have been controlled for two years by its emergency financial manager Robert Bobb, who has been shutting down dozens of schools every year to deal with a yawning budget deficit. Bobb shut down 45 schools in 2010, and in February called for another 45 more to be shut down and shifted over to charter school companies’ control. Bobb has also suggested that he may do away with teachers’ seniority rights and may allow managers to choose which teachers are laid off.

Bobb recently announced that every single Detroit Public Schools teacher would be receiving a layoff notice in anticipation of further budget cuts at the end of the year, and all the while teachers have made significant concessions to deal with the budget gap. The Detroit teachers union agreed to $90 million concessions and, according to the Detroit Free Press, deferred $10,000 in pay for two years.

Except that if what Bobb’s really concerned about is closing the deficit, his reforms may not be helping matters. In the two years he’s been on the job the deficit has ballooned from $200 million to its current $327 million.

So are these attacks on the public sphere about closing very real budget deficits? Or are they the manufactured crises that provide the political cover to trample on public workers rights?

Detroit Mayor David Bing is getting in on the game too, proposing a plan to slash away at his city’s 12,000 public workers’ pensions. In a budget address he gave earlier this month, he asked that city workers pay more for health care and pensions. If workers don’t comply, Bing said he’s ready to use Public Act 4 to cancel workers’ collective bargaining agreements.

"It’s that simple," Bing said in his recent budget speech, the Washington Post reported.

And it doesn’t end there. Michigan lawmakers are also mulling legislation that would sanction teachers who dare to go on strike. Teachers who strike could stand to lose their teacher’s licenses for a minimum of two years under the new bill. Some could even lose their licenses permanently, the AP reported.

The thing that’s important to note about Detroit’s attack on public workers is that Bobb’s budget cleanup measures also follow a very specific school reform agenda. Bobb is a 2005 graduate of the Eli Broad Foundation’s Superintendent Academy. The Broad Foundation is one of the most powerful and influential foundations that’s controlling the market-driven school reform movement in the country right now. So when Bobb proposes shutting down over 40 public schools–where 16,000 students are enrolled–and handing them over to private entities as a cost-cutting measure, the question is: at what cost?

Meanwhile, Detroit families are fighting the proposed school closures. More than a hundred parents and students filled an auditorium last night to save six public schools that are slated for closure, the Detroit News reported.

Of the 45 schools that Bobb has put on the auction block, 18 will close in June if a charter school doesn’t take them over. The rest are being opened to charter school companies this year but will stay open through next year even if an outside operator isn’t confirmed, the Detroit News reported.

"When it comes to children, you can’t look them in the eye and say you aren’t rich enough to get a quality education," Detroit second-grade teacher Barbara Haug told the Detroit News yesterday.