Michigan’s Corporate Martial Law Meets Detroit’s School Reform

The city's leaders are auctioning off its public schools.

By Julianne Hing May 05, 2011

If you’ve ever wondered whether the solution to a cash-strapped low-performing urban school district’s financial and education woes is the wholesale privatization of the public school system, you’re about to get your answer. Detroit, which is caught up in a state that has turned on its public workers, is auctioning off its public schools.

The city is taking applications as part of its Renaissance 2012 plan to put 45 public schools up for charter school takeover, and yesterday, the Detroit Free Press reported its gotten 18 charter school companies eyeing some 50 schools.

The Detroit school system is facing a dizzying $327 million budget deficit, and is under strict orders to deal with massive debt. But under the rule of Bob Bobb, the emergency financial manager appointed to caulk the sinking ship, the deficit has actually grown by over a $100 million, even as teachers have made significant concessions in pay and benefits. His latest attempt to deal with the massive deficit called for 45 schools to eventually be shut down if they weren’t converted to charter school control. Of those, 18 would be shuttered in June if no new outside charter school operator is identified. The rest are slated for outside takeover by 2012, Bobb has said. Charter schools are privately run, publicly financed schools.

The thing is, Bobb’s brand of financial reforms also follow a very specific script of pro-charter school reform which calls for school districts to allow outside operators, including parent and teacher groups, to jockey for control of a school if it’s suffering from poor performance or declining enrollment. And while part of the problem is that Detroit is a shrinking city, the school reforms it’s taken on won’t so much firm up DPS’ bank accounts as they will further destabilize the city’s public school system.

And Detroit’s reforms may soon be headed for the rest of the state, too. Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s corporate martial law that he signed back in March, state-appointed emergency financial managers like Bob Bobb now have unilateral power to dissolve public unions, seize and sell assets, shut down schools and eliminate services if they feel it’s appropriate to help a town avoid bankruptcy.

Last Wednesday, Snyder announced that he would appoint emergency financial managers for 23 cash-strapped school districts. Eighteen of them are in Metro Detroit, the Detroit News reported. All of the districts have more than a $1 million deficit, and according to Michigan’s Department of Education, together they have an operating deficit of $440 million. With a $327 million deficit, the bulk of that deficit still sits with the Detroit Public Schools.

Michigan’s new emergency financial managers are being dispatched to poor communities of color, where they’re being given total power to attack public institutions and public workers in favor of, very often, financial reforms that favor corporations and private business over. As The Advancement Project’s Judith Browne-Dianis told Rinku Sen back in March, three of the four cities and school districts that already had emergency financial managers are majority black. "I believe this is the waterfront and Detroit bill," Browne-Dianis said. "This is how Detroit will become gentrified. This is how corporate interests and developers will get to have wholesale control of our towns, our land and there’s nothing we can do about it."