The charter school mess

Oct 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

By now, you probably know the basics of the autopsy report. Bob Thompson, a wealthy businessman from Plymouth, offered to put up $200 million to build 15 charter high schools in Detroit. Whatever your politics, that was an amazingly generous offer, especially in a city where the schools, like the government, are a stunning failure.

But the politicians betrayed the children. Every “player” and every faction seized on this opportunity and tried to use it as a political football, carefully calculating every angle except one: The well-being of the children of Detroit.

They don’t matter, evidently. Kwame Kilpatrick worked hard to cement the impression that he is a complete buffoon, dedicated to “looking big,” getting re-elected, and being chauffeured to the next club party and Pistons game.

Republicans in the Legislature threw themselves into trying to score points with the far-right foundations who give them money, and embarrass the Democrats besides. The Detroit Federation of Teachers threw a tantrum, pitched a strike and tried to prove that what the hard right says about public employee unions is pretty much true.

And Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the empty-skirt in chief, played her usual role, showing no real leadership and trying to have it both ways. She neither signed nor vetoed the bill that would have allowed these schools to exist. “Thinking outside the box” is fine, in other words, as long as it never leads to anything that might offend someone.

Finally, Kwame, perhaps after studying tapes of old Coleman Young speeches his mommy found for him, went on TV and theatrically warned our poor thwarted benefactor, Bob Thompson, that he better “abide by the rules” or go bye-bye. This from a man who sends his children to a Central Michigan University charter school.

Soon after, with dignity and class, Thompson withdrew his offer. I have no idea why it took him so long, except that he seems to have thought someone would eventually get around to caring about the children. “The proposal was meant to be for kids, and not against anyone or any institution,” he said plaintively. Poor silly man.

The fact is that this is, on a deeper level, not really about charters at all. The real question simply: What kind of society do we want this to be?

Do we want Detroit — and Michigan and the United States of America — to be a place where every child has some chance, however small, to succeed in life?

We are now moving in exactly the opposite direction. We are working hard to turn this into a Third World country, with laws and schools and gated communities for a few, and second-, third- or subclass existence for the rest.

Detroit is already mostly there. Curiously, that doesn’t seem to bother some of those charged with looking after the downtrodden. Dr. Kenneth Burnley, who as Detroit Public Schools chief executive may be best known for his natty suits, had an op-ed in Sunday’s Detroit NewsFreep denouncing charter schools.

“We are staying the course,” he said, the precise words ol’ Ronald Reagan used to justify his economic policies. Burnley went on to brag that under his enlightened leadership the schools are now losing a mere 3,000 students a year! Keep them bad charters out, and he figures he can hold the loss to a mere 30,000-plus over the next decade.

That’s what he actually wrote! He ignored the fact that Detroit parents — African-American parents — have been voting with their feet, for charter schools, for other districts, for decades. That’s actually good news; it means they care about their kids.

Here’s the harsh fact. Nobody with any ability — and any conscience — is going to place their elementary school-age children in Detroit Public Schools today. If you doubt this, look at the mayor’s family. Or John Conyers’. Or Butch Hollowell’s.

I have always disliked charter schools. This nation was made great by a system of public schools, most notably in New York City, that educated the children of immigrants and gave them a foundation to succeed.

And frankly, I don’t think Bob Thompson’s proposal would have made that much difference — though if it had worked, it might have made some. Yet many of the children of despair are lost long before high school — in many cases, before age 2.

Today, most of the people who have the maturity and money to have babies have left Detroit. Many of the babies who wind up in the city’s public schools come from families that are anywhere from troubled to nonexistent.

What is needed is the will in this country to do whatever it takes to fix the schools by fixing society and making sure every child has a chance — no matter what that takes.

For that, we need politicians with the guts to not only say so, but make hard decisions and tell us all it will cost a lot. And it would cost a lot — and be far cheaper for society in the long run.

Thirteen years ago, Germany was put back together. To grossly oversimplify, East Germany looked a lot like Highland Park, and West Germany a lot like Birmingham. And the west has spent billions to bring the east up to a decent standard.

They did that because it was right. Nobody would dare to suggest anything that courageous here — though it is exactly what this society needs. We’ll get a much bigger bill when the children of despair now growing up in Detroit, the ones left behind after middle-class black flight, come of age.

And you may want to remember that a man with decent values offered a proposal to pump $200 million into our failing school system in our desperate city, and none of our so-called leaders on any level really tried to make any part of this work. Cheers.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]