The education of Prince Dennis

Lionel Linder, editor of the Detroit News until the paper was destroyed by Gannett in the late ’80s, used to say the city was on its way to becoming our first authentically Eastern European socialist economy. That, I thought, was unfair to Bulgaria, where the kids all did get basic literacy, everybody was drearily fed, and the streets were swept, if only by twig brooms.

Everything happily changed, however, when Dennis Archer appeared in 1993.

Here was a man who was able to become the instant darling of the moneyed and intellectual elites. Why, he could walk with kings, but must have the common touch, too; after all, he had been born in poverty. The hood was suspicious, but mostly went along. Oakland County was well pleased with anyone who promised not to say nasty things about white suburbanites.

In the city, they whispered that Saint Coleman hadn’t done much for the crumbling neighborhoods in recent years; it was all downtown. Maybe this guy will get some money in.

Well, here we are, five years after Archer took up his quiver. Winter has been hard on the Dennis before. There was a blizzard his first week in office, and goons associated with the Tonya Harding formerly known as a skater clubbed Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.

To be sure, the mayor learned from this, and we haven’t had a skater whacked since. Nor have we had much winter, until now. Ten days ago, as those not reading this online in Veracruz know, we had a foot of snow in less than a day. Florida Ed McNamara’s expert stewardship of the airport instantly became apparent. So did a side of Archer that few have seen. The pompous, stubborn and inflexible side, as he obstinately refused to declare a snow emergency, or change the bizarre policy of not plowing residential streets.

Naturally, the roads leading to the Manoogian Mansion, aka Versailles Minor, had been plowed. Why don’t the commoners stay inside and eat cake? Eventually I would guess either Judge Trudy, his wife, or Field Marshall Beth DunCombe, her sister, or both, yelled at him.

He reversed course, yet more lasting damage, as Robespierre mighta told King Louis XVI, may have been done. Twenty years ago, the same thing happened in Chicago, and a mayor actually was voted out because he failed to get the streets plowed. No one knows how serious the consequences of this are, but the animals plainly have been aroused.

Pete Waldmeir, a vaguely right-wing populist, seems to have figured out King Dennis. "I don’t know if Archer fully understands it, but his administration may well be in deep trouble ... in serious danger of being buried under a roaring avalanche of criticism because of inattentiveness and inaction."

Archer has done things right, of course. Yet he has had virtually a free ride from the press, with the exception of the Metro Times and, mainly, nasty little me. That is changing, now, and how he deals with it will tell us a lot about the measure of the man. Can he grow?

Watch your streets.

Which reminds me of our schools, something far more important. Dennis Archer has recently made noises, as Governor Engler has before him, about taking over the public schools. Critics are nastily asking why we should think the city can run the schools when it can’t even run itself.

Now is the time for a little truth far more shocking than the Starr report:

Socialism, for some purposes, is good. State and governmental control is not always a bad thing. No, the state can’t run the economy. But does anyone really think Harper Woods should have its own army? Does anyone want to privatize nuclear weapons?

Naturally not, and we need some agency to run the schools with the efficiency of a well-trained military unit at its best. Looking at the numbers, one could conclude that everyone responsible for the Detroit school system should be shot and their estates billed for the cost of the bullets. By the time the city’s 175,000 students reach 11th grade (those who do) more than 91 percent of them fail minimum proficiency requirements in science, according to latest figures. More than 80 percent fail reading requirements; 78 percent math. Every year they stay in the school system their scores get worse; two-thirds are math-proficient in fourth grade.

Engler Republicans think the solution is to destroy the school system and give parents "education vouchers" they can use at any so-called charter institution of learning. They are confident your average teenage mom can be depended on to make the right decision.

Years ago, there was a French minister of education who said he could look at the clock at any time during the school day and tell you what every student in his nation was learning. That may be too extreme, but we have lost sight of two great truths. One is that public education, especially in our great cities, was the real melting pot that created America.

The other is that if we go on producing millions of high school graduates who can’t read, write, turn on a computer or do simple sums, we will create a massive and menacing underclass. You heard it here first. Now enough gloom; next week, we’ll have beach fun with Linda Tripp.

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