Politics & Prejudices: Destroying schools, destroying Detroit

Politics & Prejudices: Destroying schools, destroying Detroit
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State Sen. Morris Hood's rant in the legislature is now fairly famous. "You cowards!" he bellowed as the Republicans in the body went back on the deal to which they'd agreed, stabbing Detroit Public Schools and the city itself in the back.

"You're damn cowards to even take up this legislation before us and our community and not even have one Detroiter in the room to help to negotiate this."

Hood's outrage was totally justified — but he was dead wrong about the cowardice part. Those who did this weren't cowards; that would imply shame about what they had done.

They were evil bastards. Speaker Kevin Cotter, a slick 38-year-old Republican from Midland, wants to destroy Detroit Public Schools, and their so-called bailout plan is a ticking time bomb calibrated to do just that. The mainstream media have worked hard for years at missing this story and getting it wrong, often under the guise of being "fair and balanced."

But let's give credit where credit is due. The Detroit Free Press, somewhat to my astonishment, not only got what was occurring, but has been fully willing to call out the evildoers.

Brian Dickerson, who has a better grasp on these things than most people, was bluntly truthful in his June 12 column.

Republicans hate Detroit's public schools and want to see them go out of business, leaving what passes for "education" to the charter school lobby, which has contributed heavily to many of their campaigns. Some of these charters are run by for-profit companies, and there are a lot of unscrupulous characters out there who are just salivating to make a profit off the taxpayers.

Unfortunately for the greedheads, they can't afford to let DPS spiral off into bankruptcy — not yet, anyway.

To quote Dickerson: "As eager as Republicans are to put DPS out of business for good, they know Michigan can't afford a Chapter 9 bankruptcy that would put state taxpayers on the hook for as much as $3 billion. The $617 million the legislature appropriated is the minimum necessary to avoid such a reckoning until a) incumbent legislators are no longer in office and b) charter operators are better poised," to move in when the district does finally and totally collapse.

They know what they are doing, all right.

Tragically, it didn't have to be this way. Gov. Rick Snyder is in some ways a more contemptible figure than those who are hell-bent on doing the worst, because he knows better. But when push comes to shove, he always caves in to the far right.

Why he is so gutless is a complete mystery, even given his painfully obvious inability to feel empathy for his fellow human beings, at least the poor and poorly educated ones.

Snyder is financially secure for life, and after what his administration did to Flint, he has to know he has no political future. But he also has no guts. What happened with DPS is a classic example. Just as with the roads, Snyder himself proposed a remarkably good plan that made common sense. The schools would be split into an "old" district and a new one, much as was done during the General Motors bankruptcy.

The old district would be only in charge of paying down the debt, at which point it would presumably go out of business.

The new district would be freed up to use all its time, energy, and resources to educate children. Snyder asked the legislature to appropriate $715 million to get this done.

To my astonishment, something amazing and good then happened. Republicans who control the state Senate worked with Democrats to forge a rare bipartisan agreement.

They passed as much money as the governor wanted — and also accepted a key feature of the plan, a Detroit Education Commission, or DEC, that could rule on where any proposed new schools that take public money could locate in Detroit.

That made perfect sense to any fair-minded human being. Why should two competing sets of districts, both taking public money, indulge in destructive competition for taxpayer dollars, leaving poorer areas of the city unserved?

Indeed, the DEC was even endorsed by the leaders of 20 responsible and above-board charter school operators, many of whom appeared at a press conference with Mayor Mike Duggan.

"We must have a system of quality and accountability," for both conventional public and charter school operators, said Ralph Bland, the CEO of one, New Paradigm for Education.

But accountability of any kind is something bitterly opposed by Dan Quisenberry, who heads the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, or MAPSA.

MAPSA is to education what the National Rifle Association is to responsible gun ownership. Quisenberry relentlessly lobbied the House members he owns to kill the Detroit Education Commission, and they obeyed.

This upset anyone who understands what killing the DEC meant, including Duggan and John Rakolta, the deeply conservative Republican developer who cares about education.

"This is essential if the schools are to have any chance to make it," Rakolta told me when I saw him at the Mackinac conference. Men like Cotter knew that, too.

That's why they killed it.

To be fair, it's not certain that Detroit Public Schools would have made it even with the governor's plan. They have been so discredited in so many parents' eyes.

To be fair again, Detroiters and those running the schools have brought some of this on themselves. It's hard to have any sympathy for the dozen Detroit school principals charged with taking bribes and kickbacks for school supplies that were never really ordered or delivered. Black civil servants stole from poor black children to pad their pockets at the kids' expense.

Still, the schools might have had a chance. They don't now. The funds the legislature provided aren't nearly enough to give the schools a chance. In a particularly sadistic flourish that shows their true intentions, the schools were forbidden to use more than $25 million of the money to fix up their rotting, mold-infested buildings. They are, however, allowed to hire uncertified teachers.

Tom Watkins, a former state school superintendent, told me "putting an ideological patch on a huge hole which the state helped create will not keep DPS afloat."

Well, of course it won't. It's not supposed to.

Nor will this be anything but bad news for Detroit. No city without a public school system parents can trust ever has any hope of attracting anyone capable of voting with their feet.

Without that, Detroit is doomed to be, at best, a place of childless hipsters and menacing slums.

You now know who did this to the city, and why.

A brief note on Gordie Howe Several millennials have asked me with genuine puzzlement why all the fuss over the death of Gordie Howe, a long-retired hockey player.

They got it about Muhammad Ali, but not about Gordie. So let this old baby boomer tell you why we cared. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Red Wings and the Tigers were mostly mediocre and life in Detroit often dreary, we had two consistently world-class guys we could admire. Al Kaline in baseball and Gordie Howe in hockey. They weren't just stars.

They were classy gentleman. When I met Howe, when I was a lowly golf caddy, he was nicer than any guy in the gas station. He was a shining touchstone of the best of what was.

That's why.

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