Detroit schools: What matters

Mar 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

OK, fans. I know you want another Kevorkian column, but it’s time to tackle the hot question of the day: Should Dennis Archer be given control of Detroit’s public schools?

Whether he wants it or not, that seems likely, and soon. Big John Engler thinks that’s a good idea, and the Legislature could make it happen within a month.

Archer has dithered a bit, but evidently is willing. This would mean, as far as we can tell, dismissing the present elected school board and installing seven directors chosen by the mayor. The superintendent will be replaced by a "chief operating officer."

What happens after that is anything but clear.

So is this a good idea?

Frankly ... I don’t know. Basically, a democratically elected government will be tossed out and replaced with political appointees. That’s the sort of thing Latin American dictators are famous for. But Detroit schools have failed for a long time. The board and administration have done everything possible to perform below expectations. Those supporting them in the Michigan Legislature are even worse. With one or two exceptions, they oppose the takeover for moronic reasons.

State Rep. Kenneth Stallworth is an example. He was quoted as saying, if I understood his tangled syntax, that he was opposed because African-Americans won the right to vote only relatively recently, and no one should attempt to overturn the results of their elections. Other legislators showed up at the Capitol in faux-African garb and allowed as to how they saw the proposed power shift as racism.

Never mind that Archer is black; playing the race card here is not very smart, since if this becomes framed as a racial matter, the obvious conclusion some not-very-nice people will draw is that blacks are incapable of running a school system.

What is clear is that Detroit’s public schools aren’t working; that the vast majority of their 175,000 students are not getting an adequate education, are not graduating with the basic skills, in many or most cases are not graduating at all.

Fourth-graders in those schools, by a bare majority (52.6 percent) passed the state’s reading proficiency tests in 1998. By the time they get to seventh grade, only 32 percent pass. By 11th grade, the figure is less than a fifth – and many of the weakest already have dropped out. The figures are even worse for math, science, writing.

Do we know why? Not really. Sure, we suspect that poverty is a factor, as is social breakdown, etc., but we don’t know enough about what happens within the walls. The Detroit media, which have extensively interviewed the bureaucracy and the politicians on this issue, have made few forays into the schools, where something might be learned about why learning isn’t taking place.

That might mean paying attention to the children. The Free Press last week did quote Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a rare individual who seems to have a clue.

"Drastic circumstances require drastic measures," he said. "The only race that matters is the race that succeeds in properly educating our children before another generation is lost."

Amen. Jesus. Hallelujah.

The children are why the schools exist in the first place. Since I don’t have enough enemies, let me say that if a squad of old white men in uniforms descended on the Detroit schools today, enforced standards, and made sure that every child could read, write and do simple sums by the time she or he got out of there, it would be a wonderful thing.

Wonderful, especially, for African-Americans who would emerge from the classroom with some skills. No, I am not saying that is what is needed to make the schools work. Nor do I know whether Archer has a clue about how to make them work. But trying something, anything else, might be better.

Doubters ought to read Detroit Schools Superintendent Eddie Green’s pathetic Detroit News interview Feb. 24. Bankrupt of ideas, he sounds like Dan Quayle after sniffing glue. "Kids are shot in the community. Killed. I believe it is not going to get much better unless we address the whole learner and make the learner a whole."

Later, he adds, "I don’t think that the district has been given the kind of time to really look at the results," he said. "I guess people are saying it is taking too long."

Get out the hook, fast. Back in the days when Franklin D. Roosevelt was scrambling to get the nation out of the Great Depression, a reporter asked his ideology. "I try something and if it doesn’t work, I try something else," FDR said.

Works for me. What has to be done first is bottom-line competency; the schools have to be clean, safe places where a motivated child can get an education – and which can also motivate children to want to succeed. There are people who have some idea how to get there, and the mayor, or whoever, needs the guts to make the hard decisions.

Incidentally, this was a brilliant political stroke by Engler, who manages to pass the buck on the schools and still look good. If the mayor, a Democrat, fails badly, it isn’t the governor’s fault. If he has some success, well, Engler made it all possible, didn’t he? Here’s hoping we are all happily surprised. Once in awhile, even I hate being a nasty old cynic.