MEMO: January 25, 2016
TO: ANYONE WHO GIVES A WHIT ABOUT EDUCATING DETROIT’S KIDS
FROM: Ben Washburn
RE: HOW EDUCATIONAL SAUSAGE IS REALLY MADE
Based upon my life’s experience and a lot of basic sociological findings, none of the things being talked about in the Legislature, papers, talk shows, and other media these days will result in any real improvement in the educational outcomes for Detroit’s children. In this paper, I will try to explain why, and also why you actually ought to read it to its end.
I am not a fan of calling together a small group of folks who are distressed about what appears to be the educational outcomes of our students, but who don’t know much more than they have read or heard in the media, and then having them try to decide what they can do about the issue. The more that you actually go into these issues, the more complex you will find that they are. Bottom Line: You have to dig deeper, a whole lot deeper.
So, why should you waste any of your time listening to some obscure old white guy? What am I likely to know that is worth knowing? Well, my life experiences will probably stun you. But, for now, you can just skip them and go on to page 13, and come back to this point, if you still wonder why I am able to say what I say.
I grew-up on the far lower ledge of polite society, but I was also just one of those millions of my generation who made it somewhat to the other side of the tracks. It was not easy and it was rarely comfortable. Even today, after 80 years, I am never really at ease in breaking bread with folks who grew up on the better side of the tracks. But that particular discomfort also accounts in part for my success of identifying with, after knocking on tens of thousands of doors, with my constituents in Northwest Detroit, who four times elected me as their representative on the Detroit Board of Education between 1989 and 2003, even though I was “white” and 75% of them were “black”.
I grew up on a subsistence tobacco farm in north-central Kentucky. My mother was the daughter of a mean-spirited, but “piss-poor” one-eyed, red-haired share-cropper, and a passive and always submissive mother. My mother finished the 8th grade in a two-room school, but couldn’t go to high school because the Great Depression hit in 1929, and she and her 5 brothers and sisters had to work in the fields in order for the family to have just enough money to have pancakes for breakfast and “mush” and sometimes pork-belly for supper. She was also socially ostracized for being epileptic, because that, then and there, was widely believed to be the result of the mortal sins of her parents.
At age 19 in 1934, she met my father at a barn dance. My father was then 35 and one of a family of six Erskine Cauldwell misfits, who were by then on the far edge of polite society. He was the kind of crackpot that people edged away from after exchanging just a few words. But my father was a descendent of a family of early pioneers, who at one time had been at the top center of polite society. And my mother was enamored by the Washburn family’s past reputation. They were married in February 1935, and I was born exactly nine months later, delivered in the farmhouse by a Morman mid-wife who lived about a mile down the road. Sometimes, when my wife is exasperated by some household mess that I have made, she will blurt-out: “Were you born in a barn?” And I will answer: “Pretty close!” It was by kerosene lamplight during the winter of 1935, in a house that had been built in just 7 days, which had no closets to store anything, and in a bedroom heated by a coal stove, with no running water or electricity. I still have that lamp.
My mother was not a brilliant woman, but she was a very capable person. When she was in that final 8th grade, she won a county-wide prize in the 4-H Club. In later years, she won the top homemaker prize for three years running at the Kentucky State Fair, for her baking, canning, and sewing. She was even featured in 1950 in a national magazine advertising campaign by the Fleishman Yeast Company. In later years, when she lived in Niagara Falls, New York with her second husband, she worked for 16 years in the lady’s apparel accessories section of the biggest department store in the city, Jansen’s. She quickly rose from being a sale’s clerk to being in charge of this section, and was sent to New York City each year during Fashion Week, to buy her section’s inventory. She had very good taste for what would sell, despite all the deficits in her education.
But, when I was growing-up, my mother was not invited into the existing networks of middle-class folks who lived around us, because she just “didn’t belong among more affluent folk”. Most of the neighborhood women were part of a group known as the Homemakers. My mother was never invited to take part. I guess that I knew about this disparity, but didn’t know what to make of it. My father’s brothers and sisters were also not invited, because they were simply weird.
The summer that I was 5, I was invited to a birthday celebration a half-mile up the dirt road for the 6th birthday of a neighbor’s daughter. They served chocolate ice cream cones, which I ended-up excitedly but accidentally, smearing across the resplendent white dress of the star of the event. Her mother went spastic, and insisted that I “apologize” or go home. Well, I went home crying all the way down the road, because I had no clue as to what “apologize” meant. Of course, I knew what someone saying: “I’m going to whip your sorry ass” meant, but I had no clue as what “apologize” meant.
That Fall, I started first grade at Cropper High School with the 57 other kids in my classroom. I was the youngest and among the most unprepared in the class, because I was born on the day before the cut-off date to begin school. Our teacher, Miss Wright was an elderly woman who was humorless and strict. (With 58 kids to break-in, maybe that was the only way she could have been.) One day early on, I needed to relieve my bladder, but had no idea as what to do, other than to try to wait for recess. At home, I would just go out the back door and then out into the weeds and let go. I had seen other kids raise their hand and ask to be “excused”. But I had no clue as to what that was all about. Finally, I could hold it in no longer. So the pee dribbled through my pants, ran and across the seat and puddled onto the floor next to my seat. Miss Wright came ambling up the aisle until she encountered my puddle, at which point she was revolted and on the verge of gagging. She yanked me out of my seat, took her heavy 3-sided ruler and whacked it across my knuckles, exclaiming “You nasty, nasty little creature”, and sent me bawling to the Principal’s office, where I sat for five hours on a bench in the hallway, while other kids walked by and laughed at me, until it was time to take the bus home. Some things, you never forget.
I suspect that most of the folks reading this grew-up within families who had already achieved a middle-class status, and have absolutely no clue as to how to deal with these crucial class-relations issues. But gut-responses and shallow understandings will not do diddily-dee to improve the economic and sociological prospects for people in this City. It is not enough to just be well-meaning.
I’m writing a whole lot about myself here, because I think it is relevant to the bottom line of this paper. I expect that you will need to know a lot about me if you are to take anything that I am going to say seriously. I am extremely persistent at anything that I undertake. This, I think, comes from two different sources.
Firstly, going back to my mother, from her childhood training, she was a taskmaster at getting done whatever work needed to get done, no matter how long it took. From the time that I was 8 or 9, that meant going out into the tobacco fields in the summer and working from 8 AM until the sun finally went down at 8 or 9 PM in the evening. Tobacco takes a lot of intensive labor. It takes about 300 workhours between May and September to raise an acre. Much of this work is actually easier for a child than it is for an adult, because you are closer to the ground, and don’t have to bend down so much.
You begin by weeding the plant beds in April and May after you get home from school. Then, you transplant the seedlings into the growing fields at the end of May. Some survive; and some die. So, by June, school is out, and you come back along the rows with a sack full of transplants, and use a wooden peg to put them into the ground where the first transplant had died. By July 4th, the plants are knee-high and the leaves begin to be assaulted and riddled by big fat green horned worms (You have probably seen some of these worms on your tomato vines.) So, all day long, you have to go down the tobacco rows, check the bottom of every leaf, and squish these creatures dead in your hand. Then in August, the tobacco plant begins to sprout a “sucker” at the joint between the main stalk and each leaf. So, once again you have to work down each row all day long in hot and humid weather using your hands to snap these suckers off. By now, the tobacco is 4-feet high and each plant has about 20 leaves. The ones at the very bottom mature first; they turn yellow and then a dried-up brown. In September, the adults go through and whack down each plant at the point where its leaves are still yellow and spear it onto a 4-foot hardwood lathe. These sticks are then taken to the barn and hung upside down to cure. But the children come behind and gather-up the “trash” leaves which have already turned brown. These leaves, because they contain a higher amount of sugars, are among the most prized by the tobacco buyers. So, I’m sorry that it took so many words to make this point, but if you haven’t been there and done it, you can not possibly understand the point that I wanted to make. This makes you persistent.
Secondly, I was also born with what today, folks would call a dyslexic disability. But then and there, it meant that up until the fifth grade, I got a constant series of Ds and Fs, but was pushed forward to the next grade anyway. In the Spring of my fourth grade, at the end of the day while waiting for the bus to come, my teacher, Ms. Leach, began to read from “Tom Sawyer”, and I became obsessively hooked on learning how to read. I would go home every day and tell our hired hand, Gayle Owens, all that I had heard that day, and Gayle would laugh and encourage me to tell him more. During the fifth grade, I finally bloomed and took home the prize for reading every one of the 126 books in the fifth grade library. So my grades jumped from Ds. and Fs to solid As within just that one year. But, I was still a very, very slow reader. It took immense concentration for me to read. I learned how to blot-out everything else that was going on anywhere around me and zero-in on just this one most important thing. I had to do what is called “overlearning” everything. But it became a life-long habit and asset. I am always unsure of myself, and always over-learn all aspects of every situation before I make a decision. This drives some folks around me nuts, because I totally blot them out when I am reading or thinking, but I am very, very seldom wrong about anything that I finally say or do.
My father was not much at parenting. One Spring day, when I was six, I went out to where he had been trying unsuccessfully for hours to get the tractor fixed and started so that he could begin to plow the fields for the year’s tobacco crop. So, he grabbed a broken triangular fan belt and beat me with it several times. It took three weeks for the welts across my butt and legs to heal. So, I quickly learned to stay well away from him whenever he was frustrated.
My father also was not much at partnering. He had some pretty gross habits. He never used a handkerchief. When he got a cold, he would blow his snots into his hand and sling them against the nearest wall, to the consternation of my mother who tried to keep th0se walls decorated with wallpaper. He seldom bathed, and would wear the same pairs of overalls and long-johns week-after-week until you could scrape the dirt off of them. He seldom shaved, but kept his straight razor under his bedroom pillow, a fact which always kind of puzzled me. In later years, my mother explained that from their first night after being married, he had warned her that he would slit her throat if she ever dared to deny his wants. Based on my birthdate, I must have been conceived on that first night.
Once I began to do well in school, I got a lot of personal support from my teachers, and was encouraged to continue my education. But, that also brought me into clear conflict with my father, who wanted me to work the farm and allow him to retire, because, as a “Washburn”, work was simply beneath him; he hated it.
Why? Because the five generations before him had been slave-owners and slave-traders. Benjamin the first, was born on November 30, 1752 in Culpepper County, Virginia. He had at least 21 brothers and sisters that I have been able to trace. (Curiously, of the 5 Ben Washburns, 3 of us were born on November 30th, and my father was a near miss on December 13th.) Ben, the first, is noted in West Virginia local history books as one of the few Washburn brothers who escaped an Indian foray from Detroit in 1777, when he was 14. He joined Washington’s Continental Army on his 15th birthday in 1778. He spent two years guarding the 6,000 British soldiers captured at the Battle of Saratoga in western New York in 1777.
After marching them back to Boston in 1780 for a prisoner exchange, he was with the Continental Army at the final battle at Yorktown. For this, he received a land grant from the State of Virginia to land in western Kentucky, which then was still a part of Virginia. In 1784, he sold his rights to that land, and migrated instead to central Kentucky along with an uncle and two cousins, and 26 slaves. He bought land in what is now Shelby County. That is where I grew-up. I still own a piece of that land. Ben I is actually buried on the back of my farm, but his gravestone has long been stolen (as an historical collectible piece), and no one knows anymore the exact location of his grave. And I’m not sure that I care much about that.
Going back a much longer ways, my distant ancestors were Vikings from Scandinavia who invaded northern France about 700 AD. By 1066, they came to England as invaders with William the Conqueror, and were awarded lands in middle western England near Wales. For 500 years, they lived off the fat of the land, as soldiers of the King. But in the 1640’s, they sided with the King against Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary army in the English Civil War, and lost. So, they had to find other ways to make a living, and many of them came to the then growing American colonies.
From 1704 until his death in 1789, Ben, the first’s father and uncle ran a slave-trading outpost at the upper navigable reaches of the Rappahannock River in Culpepper County, Virginia. Curiously again, that plantation became the scene in June, 1863 of one of the more prominent civil war battles. Three weeks before the crucial battle at Gettysburg, 9,500 horse-mounted forces of the Union Army accidentally confronted about 10,000 members of JEB Stuart’s cavalry, for a whole morning of indecisive battle, on what had once been the Washburn plantation, in the battle at Brandy Station.
I did not know much about the previous four paragraphs when I was growing-up, but was able to reconstruct it about ten years ago. Because they were English gentry and landlords, actual records still exist which chart their history.
But early on, I did remember something about Elijah Smith. Lidge was born as a slave to my ancestors in 1854, in the same year as my father’s father was born. They grew up first as playmates, until Lidge was maybe 10 or ll. Lidge was freed from slavery by the Kentucky Legislature in 1865 when he was 11, but stayed-on as a servant to the family until they died off in the 1930s. His wife worked as a cook for my great uncle Ben until she died in 1925. Lidge lived in a cabin about ½ mile up the hill from our house on the Truman farm. The father of U.S. President Harry Truman was born in that cabin, before he moved away years later to Missouri. So, when I started walking, and my mother needed to go and work in the tobacco patches, she would go get Lidge to watch after me, and keep me from falling into the open well in our back yard. The well was 30 feet deep and had no cover. So Lidge must have done a very good job.
I truly don’t remember that time, but I do remember that traumatic Saturday in 1940. I was playing in behind the wood cook-stove in the kitchen, making little forts with the corncobs that my mother used to start the fire in the morning. My mother was making breakfast, when suddenly she looked out the window and started screaming. She had looked up the hill and saw that Lidge’s cabin was afire. By the time anyone got there, Lidge had been burned alive.
In 1950, our farm had a 4-acre tobacco base, which was the maximum amount that was allowed, if the tobacco was to be sold on the federally controlled market. When I was 15, my father allowed me to raise one acre for myself. I went to a vocational agriculture high school, and was learning scientific farming techniques. My father had always had his own crack-pot theories on raising tobacco, and he tried that summer to sabotage my crop in every way he could think. It was a very dry summer that year and there was minimal water to grow the tobacco. I had the soil for my acre tested by the County Agricultural Extension Service, so that I applied just the right amount of lime and fertilizer formula. I hired my cousin to plow my field around the hill on a contour, which created hundreds of little dams, so that when it rained, the water would soak into the ground. For plants, I used the most recently developed, disease-resistant varieties recommended by the University of Kentucky Experimental Station. On his three acres, my father planted a variety, which he had used since the 1920’s, but it was not resistant to tobacco viral diseases. He was proud of running his rows of tobacco up and down the hill in a straight line, but this meant that when the few rains came, the water ran straight down the hill and into the creek without soaking-in. He used his usual mix of fertilizers. By the beginning of August, my crop was way ahead of his, so he went out into my field and snapped-off the tops of all of my plants, so that they could not grow any bigger. But my one acre still out-produced his 3 acres that year, and I put $3,000 in my bank account, which was more than enough at that time to pay for a 4-year education at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
This on-going conflict all came to a head on my 16th birthday that year, when my father had gone to the bank and realized that my mother had gambled away half of what he saw as his retirement fund. My mother paid all of the farm bills and wrote all of the checks. When we finally got electric lights in 1948, she wanted an electric stove and a refrigerator. All of the neighbors had gotten them. But my father said no. My father was infatuated with race horses and spent hours pouring over the daily results in the Louisville Courier Journal. We had a cousin in the county seat who was a bookie. My mother had placed bets with him and hoped to win enough to buy these things, but she had ended-up losing $3,000.
My father threw his breakfast against the wall that morning and went for his pistol with the obvious intent to kill us all. I was frozen, with a toothbrush still in my mouth, knowing that I was about to be dead. My father was a dead shot; I had seen him plunk-off ground-hogs with that pistol from the length of a football field. There was no point in trying to run. Fortunately, my mother had seen this coming, and had emptied the pistol and had hidden the bullets. Once he realized that his gun had no bullets, he caved, and tried to sweet-talk my mother. But she backed away into the corner of the kitchen holding a butcher knife and told him to stay away. After a while, she told him to take his sorry ass and get up to the tobacco stripping room at the upper barn. Not knowing what else to do, he put on his jacket and went there. My mother, my younger brother and myself left the house that day, never to come back. Because under Kentucky law at that time, all of a child’s wealth (under age 21) belonged to the parent, my father seized my bank account so that I could not go to college.
But, fortunately in those days, you could still work your way through college. I got a good, but dangerous, job that summer as a steeplejack’s apprentice, putting lightning rods up on houses, barns, water towers and silos. With great luck, I survived four deadly fall episodes that summer. And with the help of a $250 scholarship from the Kroger Company, plus a part-time job in the university library, I was able to finish my freshman year at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture with a 4.0 GPA. There was one nine-day period when I totally ran-out of money and had to go totally without food. But, you find, that after the first 3 days, your body adjusts and you no longer feel hungry, so long as you avoid eating anything. Sometime, mere survival is not as hard as you might think.
I also got a good Teamster’s Union job in a milk-processing plant the next summer in Cincinnati, which would pay enough to get through my sophomore year. But in July, my younger brother got appendicitis, and all of my earnings had to go to pay for his hospital bills. So, I then joined the Air Force in August, 1954 to get the GI Bill to pay for my college when I would get out 4 years later.
By the mere draw of a straw, I ended-up being assigned to a covert intelligence organization in Europe and the Middle East, where I was surrounded with people who had PhDs in economics, sociology, political history, and international law. My life, my understandings, and my perspectives were changed forever. My on-the-job experience over the next five years far exceeded anything that I could ever have learned by going to college.
I have also always been extremely lucky in being at the right place at just the right moment.
So, unlike the most of you, I am not a lifelong Detroiter, although as a result of intensive interactions over the past 52 years, it has become my hometown. I finished my first degree in history and sociology at the University of Michigan in 1961, and came here in May, 1962 as a personnel specialist for the Detroit Civil Service Commission. For three years, I specialized in testing, hiring and re-classifying employees in the fields of engineering, chemistry, architecture, forestry, skilled trades, construction equipment operation, bus and vehicle maintenance and repair, water and sewer system operation, maintenance and repair, print shop operation, etc.
After the Michigan Legislature passed the Public Employees Relations Act in 1966, I was assigned to facilitate the transition of City personnel management from a paternalistic system into collective bargaining. At night, during all of those years, I also went to Law School at Wayne State University. The head of Civil Service in 1962 was Donald Sublette, who had held that job for more than 20 years. He hated all politicians, whom, he condemned all as venal, and he hated lawyers. When he learned that I was in law school, he froze all future promotions for me and exiled me to a room in the Old County Building. Fortunately, that enabled me to study law while on the job, and I ended-up second in my first year class.
On the quiet, I also assembled a handbook with which to advise applicants for a broad range of City jobs on exactly what their chances were to get a job. I had observed that many applicants, once they were advised that they had passed a test, would sit on their hands and wait to be called, even though in reality, there was absolutely no chance that they would ever be called. I felt that letting people think that they all but had a job, when they really didn’t, to not only be a disservice, but to be cruel and vindictive.
My engagement in the Detroit political scene began within 6 months after I first came to town. I worked to elect George Crockett as the second black man to the Detroit City Council. Crockett was a brilliant black lawyer, who had been targeted in the 1950s for subversive anti-American activities because he had defended Communist activists. Over the next ten years, I worked for the successful election of at least 10 far-Left candidates to local and judicial offices.
From 1967 until 1971, I was the head grant-finder/coordinator for the City. These were the years of President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Congress was authorizing at least one new program every month, and sometimes every week. My job was to keep track of these emerging opportunities, to collaborate with folks in Washington who were drawing up the regulations to implement each program, and to make sure that Detroit was first in line when the grants became available.
My engagement to improve the lot of Detroit Public Schools goes all the way back 45 years ago to 1972 when I worked to create a State-wide Coalition dedicated to changing the funding formula for all public schools state-wide. Kathryn, my first child was not born until a year later. Today, I am the Treasurer of MOSES, a metropolitan coalition of churches, mosques and synagogues, which are dedicated to social justice. But even way back then, I ran the finance committee for that effort. It was made-up mostly of far-Left activists, including Presidential and Congressional candidates for the Communist Party. But back then, Democrats Soapy Williams and then John Swainson, had been our Governors, and the most of the State leaned strongly leftwards. Even the Republican Governor, George Romney, and his Lieutenant Governor, William Milliken, were more liberal than moderate. State Representative George Montgomery from the University area of our City had been the chair of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee for more than 10 years, and I was working with his son by then, Alfred, as the Deputy Director of the Detroit/Wayne County Justice Coordinating Council. Even so, our efforts fell short of changing the State law on school funding, but my engagement on educational issues began way back then.
In the mid-70s, I became active in my own neighborhood in Rosedale Park. From 1954 until then, my work and academic focus had been upon applying sociological understandings to both work- and voluntary-organizations. This was the time during which Judge Roth ordered the desegregation of the Detroit Public Schools. I was married in April 1971 at age 36, and by July 1971, we had purchased a home in Rosedale Park. I became deeply involved in the organization of the neighborhood within 3 years. White homeowners in our area were taking flight in great numbers, because black inner-city children were being bussed into the local school (Vetal), and the local children were being bussed into inner-City schools. Rosedale was a solid middle class area, and most of these parents were unwilling to allow their children to become “Guinea pigs” for what they saw as a sure-to-fail social engineering experiment. The neighborhood organization of the time was dedicated to keeping the area the same as it had been for the previous thirty years, a place in which Jews, Catholics and Black folks were not welcome.
In 1975, I became part of a small group of young newcomers which aimed to reform the neighborhood improvement organization into what it needed to become. My own task was to create a network of Block Captains, two families on each block to stabilize the neighborhood. Because my wife and I only had one car, I rode the bus back and forth to work every day downtown, 40 minutes each way. My first step over 6 months, while riding to and from work, was to write a manual for Block Captains. I worked in the City-County Building, and during lunch, I checked the County Land Records to see who had moved into the neighborhood to replace the folks who had fled, to see what they paid, and how much they owed on their mortgages. There were 59 blocks in Rosedale, which included 1582 homes. I typed up the mimeograph originals for my manual after hours a work, and ran them off in my basement on a handcrank machine. The National Bank of Detroit donated 200 three-ring binders for it. The former structure of the neighborhood organization was based upon old-timers who had lived there all their lives. My concept was to approach these newcomers, with the message that by buying their home, they had committed themselves to the biggest personal investment that they would ever make, and that they had a paramount interest in making sure that that huge investment would be preserved. I personally knocked on more than 140 doors of these folks and explained what I was asking of them. 95% agreed to buy-in. Within 6 months, the new leadership of the neighborhood mirrored the racial and socio-economic make-up of our neighborhood. And within 18 months, neighborhood support for our joint efforts rose from 30% to 85% for dues-paying members.
What do I take from that experience? First of all, at least 95% of the black families who had moved into the neighborhood had strong middle-class values and aspirations. They also clearly understood with reference to the “American Dream” of upward economic mobility, that their success was highly dependent upon whom you know as well as what you know. Without those “personal networks”, you stand little chance of really getting ahead, no matter what you know. A discouraging many of these folks have since moved onto what they saw as more promising venues in the “burbs”, and they might be right, except that most “burbs” do not have the same intensive interaction as we had created in Rosedale Park. In most cases out there, you never have that chance to “know” new folks who can help you get farther ahead.
But, I was also aware, that as the black middle class became more and more concentrated in our neighborhoods, this left many other inner-city areas without any leadership, as the have’s and have-nots continuously sorted-out and became more isolated from one another.
When my children, who were born in 1973, 1977 and 1979 became of school age, beginning in 1978, my wife and I bought into what was then one of the Public School System’s Alternative Schools: The Detroit Open School. While it was based upon a model of what was called an English Nursery School, it’s main feature was that it strongly expected that parents would take an intensely active part in the operation of the school. They would actually come in and help with the everyday class-work, whether or not they had any clue as to “how best to teach children”. Just the fact your parents actually worked in the school and knew the parents and names of your classmates sends a strong positive message to a child that this place must be something special. Kathryn, our oldest daughter, began in 1978, and by 1984, I became co-chair of the parent body, 260 families having 405 children in the school. The school from it’s onset in 1972 required a 50/50 black/white mix of students, even when that part of the City was 70/30 white at that time. Serious integration was a key part of the concept of this alternative choice. Of the co-chairs of the parent body, one must be white and the other black. But intense parental support and involvement was the critical requirement. A commitment to true diversity and integration was required at the very onset, and both black and white parents lined-up to get admission to this school for weeks on end. When my wife and I applied, we had to stand in line 24/7 for two weeks ahead of the application date on the street outside the area office. The line set it’s own rules, but they made sense to everyone. Someone from the family had to stay in line 24-hours a day to hold your place. This was in early April, when you had to have a lawnchair and sleeping bags to keep warm overnight, and sometimes even in the cold, windy and sometimes wet mid-days. We were just like today’s homeless. But, while we waited in line with other applicants, we each came to know one another and we came to depend upon one another. So, when the actual school year began, there was no problem at all to sign-up for whatever was requested in support of the school. We were all seriously committed.
But there was also a problem with some folks, that once their children had gotten into the school, they became lax in their follow-thru. So, when I was elected as co-chair of the parent council in 1984, it was my commitment to do what I had done in Rosedale Park ten years before. I developed an outlay of what it would take in volunteer time to make our school the best of the best. I went to the homes of each of our 260 families that summer, and laid this plan upon them and expressed a positive expectation that each of them commit to do their fair share to make it actually happen. This took an average of at least one hour at each home. I was able to do about 20 homes per week and to hit every home over the 13 weeks of that summer. But, of course, my own family saw very little of me that summer. Bottom Line: While in education, it is important to have high expectations of students, and it is just as important to have high expectations of parents.
But those high expectations only result in extraordinary results when you have built very close connections in the first place between all of the folks who constitute the group. The power to make things better only comes from folks who have very strong connections with and commitments to one another over several years of time. So the true key question is: How do we get the parents of school-age children today to come together to form these kinds of ties and bonds with one another? And how do we keep these groups intact over several years?
For the past 30 years, I have been affiliated with a movement now called MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), of which I am currently the Treasurer. It’s a coalition of metropolitan churches, mosques, and synagogues which address various public interest issues, using tactics developed in South Chicago in the 1960s by community activist Saul Alinsky. Back in 1969, I attended a month-long residential workshop at the University of Wisconsin conducted by Alinsky. While Alinsky promoted the use of confrontational tactics, he also advised that these tactics should only be used for initiatives which were politically winnable, because failure will always sap the strength and durability of any community movement.
I have had very serious reservations about the course which deliberations of the MOSES Task Force on Education have taken. Unfortunately, in most cases, they have blindly followed the perspectives promoted by the City-Wide Coalition of Public Education. But one of the brighter perspectives was provided by Rev. Dr. Jeffery Robinson. I have been out of that loop for 15 years, and am not intimately aware of the details of today’s situation. But Rev. Robinson, who was also a member of the Coalition along with our own MOSES Executive Director, did a very good job of bringing many of these issues to our attention. But these issues are complex and our newspapers do a very poor job of helping you to understand them. Hopefully, some of the following pages will give you some sense of just how complex these things have been, and will continue to be.
The Malcolm X, Paul Roberson Academy, of which Rev. Robinson was the principal, is a very good example of what a good school must be. The parents who are attracted to it mostly share an intense and common orientation as to their place in today’s world, which binds them together and which results in them being mutually supportive and pro-education. No one that I know has conducted a study on this, but my experience tells me that at least 20% of the parents in Detroit also share that African-centric orientation, and when you create a school to which they can gravitate, you will also get a much more positive educational result. One core principle of African-centered education is to question and test authority, which is what it takes for a person to eventually stand on their own two feet, and to make waves in the real world. I don’t worry about such folks somehow becoming terrorism risks. If you get enough education to stand on your own two feet, sooner or later, you will gravitate to embracing the common good.
One of Rev. Robinson’s comments especially hit home with me, when he talked about how $1,200 of each student’s $7,200 stipend, is taken away today to repay a $60 Million debt. My first reaction was, Oh, Lord, I was the guy who first came up with the proposal which has caused much of this debt. But, I was wrong: Rev. Robinson was talking about a debt that had been incurred by several Emergency Managers to pay off more than 10 years of successive deficits.
But, there is still another huge debt out there, about which no one is talking, and which in my mind, is a ticking time bomb. I convinced all of my colleagues on the Board and the Superintendent to do it. This is also a prime example of how even the most well-meaning intentions can sometimes run headlong into a political buzz-saw.
We, your Detroit Board of Education, had advocated in 1993 for a State-Wide ballot proposal called Proposal A to change the way that schools, state-wide were financed. It shifted the main means of school support from using a local property tax, with State matching funds, instead to a 2% increase (from 4% to 6%) of the State sales tax. In Detroit, we had hit the Constitutional ceiling on using the property tax, plus state match, to fund our schools. This effort succeeded. If it had not passed, our school system was financially in a tailspin downward. With it, we have received a State Foundation Grant of about $7,500 for each of the past 10 years. Without that change, we would now be getting less than $4,000 per student from our local tax millage. In Detroit, it’s passage meant that a local property tax of 32 mills on a residence was reduced to just 6 mills. This meant that most taxpayers would see a 24-mill drop in their property tax bill, which was an overall cut of about 40%. The time was ripe, therefore, to ask the voters for a capital improvement millage increase, before they became used to a much small property tax bill, and became resistant to that increase. For the previous 40 years, successive Boards had been reluctant to ask voters for more than a 6-Mill Capital Improvement Millage. The total Detroit millage had been about double of the metropolitan average, that is about 80 mills vs. 40 mills in Oakland, Macomb and out-Wayne County. The Detroit business community in particular had been dead-set for years against anything more than a 6-mill Capital Improvement Millage. And 6-mills did not come close to the amount needed to keep our schools in good repair.
Perhaps, we could be taken to task for “manipulating” public opinion in making our request. But for a long list of reasons, the Detroit Public Schools had been deferring maintenance on our school buildings for some 65 years, ever since 1928. Tax revenue fell sharply during the Depression of the 1930s, so building maintenance was put on the back burner. Population doubled during WWII, and all available resources were deployed for the war effort. When the war was over, all available funds went instead into new construction to relieve overcrowding; many schools were running on a day and late afternoon shift. Teachers were authorized to organize and bargain in the mid-60s, and all available revenue went to increase teacher pay. Another round of new buildings were constructed in the 1970s as the City boundaries grew. By 1995, after 65 years of continuing deferral and neglect, our buildings were falling apart. We had contracted a study with the Barton Malow Construction Company to see what was needed to bring us up to modern standards, and that price tag was estimated to be $5 Billion or more, for what was needed right then. That did not include any money for what might be needed to keep those buildings in continuing good repair over the next 40 years. For example, new roofs are needed about every 15 or 20 years.
Before going any further, let me explain a little about what “capital improvement bonds” are all about. They mainly can only be used to construct or make major renovations on buildings. They cannot be used for ongoing operating costs, for example, for teacher’s salaries, janitorial services, or for fuel to heat or electricity to light the buildings. They also can not be used for ordinary building maintenance, such as plaster repair, broken doors, broken windows, repainting, wiring changes, and heating and plumbing system’s repair; these kinds of work must come from the operating budget, from which teacher’s pay is taken.
A capital improvement bond is a kind of loan. But you cannot ask for a longer time than the estimated useful life of the improvement, which in most cases for school buildings is 40 years. Each year, you take the money obtained from a property tax levy and pay for the interest then due on the bond, plus an additional 2% to 3% to repay a part of the principle originally borrowed. It works pretty much like making payments on a home mortgage. Based upon past experience, you estimate how much revenue that an authorized mill will raise, and you ask the voters to approve a millage rate that will produce the amount that will be needed each year to repay the bond interest and redemption as it becomes due. Please note carefully the underlined words. Back during the full employment flush of the middle 90’s, none of us foresaw the double whammy crash of the real estate market and national economy which hit us after the year 2K. We had overly optimistic expectations of our future economy back then. Some of the problem is due to decisions made over the previous 65 years, by Board after Board, to defer building maintenance needs.
The most that we could raise, given then foreseeable property values in Detroit, was $1.5 Billion in bonds to be repaid over the next 40 years. That was even less than one-fifth of the amount that Barton Malow had estimated that we needed. We did not have a specific plan, but we did not need that to know, that we needed to take advantage of this transitional opportunity to do the best that we could, before Detroit taxpayers became used to paying much lower taxes. And this $1.5 Billion millage request was passed by a large majority.
State law placed the limit upon local millages for school capital improvements at 13.75 mills. When we began this program in 1995, we already had a levy of 6 mills for bonds which had been issued over the previous 40 years. And most of these bonds would be paid-off in less than another 40 years. The $1.5 Billion bond request was based upon levying the maximum 7.75 mill difference between the levy of the previous 6 Mills and the 13.75 Mill limit. Most of those older bonds had been issued in the 1970s for the construction of several new buildings. Most would be paid off by 2010, and after that, it would be possible to float a new series of bonds for about $800 Million, which could be used for those major repairs needed from 2035 through 2050.
It was our consensus on the Board of Education that we do as much as we could to alleviate distressful conditions in buildings within the District. We also wanted to assure that whatever work that was done, was done, as much as possible, by Detroit-based firms.
So, we chose, not just one but two. Detroit-based, black-owned firms to manage the overall renovation program over the next 20 years. Our concept was, that these firms would coordinate all that could be reasonably be done over the next twenty years to keep our existing facilities in a reasonably useable condition. We chose two firms, rather than just one, so that we could compare their results and keep them competing with one another. That mainly meant, getting roofs in good condition, and getting windows, heating systems and lighting systems in good condition. We knew going-in that these firms had little or no experience in renovating old buildings and none in managing renovations on such a large scale. But neither did any of those other firms who had national credentials. We figured that we had time in which to work all of this out in the future best interests of the City. We were looking at least at a 20-year program and we were looking to develop a pool of tradesmen among those contractors, who were familiar and competent to keep our buildings in continuing good repair.
We also knew at that time that the population of school-age children in the City was falling off, and that some modifications would be needed to respond to that. The economy in 1994 was on an upswing, and we did not foresee the job crisis that would be coming in the new Century. Our main notion, as the student population shrunk, was to close middle schools and move neighborhood schools back to a K-8 format and to a smaller student count. The only reason that middle schools had been created in the first place was not because they were a great educational ideal, but to relieve overcrowding in the then existing K-8s. We would use some funds to renovate many of those schools to mothball the excess space. The next step was to create a series of small high schools in the closed middle school buildings; this mainly required changes in the rest rooms, such as bigger urinals, and the installation of science labs and computer rooms. We would then get rid of most of our huge high-schools, which had already become massive disciplinary swamps.
There is no way that teachers can gain any serious influence over thousands of students when they had no means of even knowing their names. If you expect teachers to have any impact upon student discipline, you cannot have more than 500 students in a building, and those 500 must remain fairly constant, with little turnover.
With just one exception, it was impossible within that $1.5 Billion to build any new schools. That one exception was for a new High School of Fine Arts, which was to be done in partnership with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which at that time was renovating and expanding Orchestra Hall. The proposed cost was to be $35 Million. This was a one-time and fleeting opportunity. So, we went for it.
It was clearly apparent to us that the bonds used to make these improvements would have to last us unto 2035, and that there would be very few funds available until then to make any other improvements. So, even though many of our schools severely needed immediate attention, we meant to spread these repairs at least over a 20-year period and to limit ourselves to major repairs which absolutely had to be done, mainly meaning roofs, windows, lights, wiring for computer labs, and in some cases rest rooms. This again was because once those repairs were made, it would take another 20 years before we could float another major series of maintenance bonds. This was mainly the result of the previous 65 years of maintenance neglect and deferral.
Basically, our conclusion was that we needed to have a building operator within every building who clearly understood the unique structural and maintenance needs of that building, and was capable of meeting the most of them. These buildings had been constructed over the span of 75 years and each presented greatly different construction techniques and materials and maintenance challenges. Unless carefully managed, steam heating systems can be dangerous. If a steam boiler is allowed to overheat, it has the explosive power of a one-ton bomb. We were therefore required by law to have a licensed Operating Engineer on station at any time that a building was open to students or the public. It did not take a lot of time each day for an Operating Engineer to check the safety of these systems. The Operating Engineers Union at that time was both willing and capable to have their members do whatever work was needed to maintain all of our buildings in safe, comfortable and useable shape.
But, there were many other weevils in the woodwork, who wanted to get rid of all of our in-house staff, so that all construction and maintenance work would then have to be contracted outside, and in the end they prevailed. This included many of our own in-house managers, who would much rather have outside contractors plying them for “favors”, rather than having to supervise and manage what they considered to be a rapscallion group of building tradesmen. In many cases, Operating Engineers were paid more than their school principals, because they had the power to shut down the whole system by just walking off of the job until they got what they wanted. They had in the past exercised this power, and this fact was widely used by the advocates for contracting everything out, to discredit them. Also, most of them were white, and apprenticeships in their union were mainly limited to the families of their current members. There was also therefore a strong racial undercurrent involved, which these managers exploited to have their way.
School board members get no compensation; they are only reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses. Too many of our school board members had a personal agenda for either themselves or to get their spouses or their children to become elected to well-paying offices as Legislators, judges, city council-people, and County Commissioners. For past decades, those folks who stoke the inside corridors of local politics, have looked upon school board seats as just another stepping-stone to the big-time. This is just another insidious part of a corrupting political culture. Over my 4 terms on the Board, at least 75% of my colleagues fell into this group, including those who were elected as a part of the HOPE Team. So, while I am not a big fan of having the Mayor appoint the governing board, I also know, from experience, that simply having board members elected by the public bears no less risk. Crafty scoundrels will always flock to fill both channels by whatever means necessary. You cannot trust any of them.
I make these points in some detail, because I know that almost none of you know how educational sausage is actually made.
So, by 1996, we had settled upon choosing two black-owned firms to manage our building maintenance program. That meant that these management groups would have a heavy hand in deciding which projects needed to be done, in what order, and by whom. This choice greatly disturbed the folks at Barton Malow, who had done the original $5 Billion survey of our overall needs, probably at a deep discount because they had hoped to get the on-going control of the program. They wanted that management contract, and in the end, they got it. The head of the company was then “just by coincidence” the head of Governor Engler’s campaign finance committee, and had an inside ear to the Governor. They evidently also had the inside ear of the editorial folks at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, because there was a steady editorial drumbeat over the next two years to castigate everything that our program managers tried to do. I cannot say that all of that criticism was misplaced, because we had a lot of feedback from the contracting community to the effect that our program managers were exploiting their favored relationship with us. But in the real world, that is the inevitable upshot of any policy to favor Detroit-based firms, and you just have to take strong measures to keep it from getting out of control.
From this, you might conclude that it would have been better if we had kept the management of the program in-house. Except, our in-house staff had already shown themselves to be even more exploitive of their positions. There was an overarching problem that you could not trust anyone to act in the best interests of our students.
In the fall of 1998, the editorial drumbeat continued. In October, the Board met with Governor John Engler at his Detroit offices. During discussions at that meeting, Member Lonnie Bates called the Governor out as an unrepentant racist. The rest of us shrunk back and made no effort to apologize or lighten the episode. Engler took deep offense; he was a man who took no prisoners during his political life; and he went back to Lansing intent upon eliminating the Detroit Board of Education, and within 5 months, he succeeded in doing that. Engler was recommending to the Legislature that the existing Board be made an advisory body, and that the Mayor appoint a new Reform Board to take over oversight of the District. As of January, 1999, Engler for the first time had a Republican majority in both the Senate and House.
Rev. Darryl Redmond was then the President of the Board, and he had had several meetings with Mayor Dennis Archer, in which he reported back to the Board that the Mayor was totally opposed to the Governor’s proposal. In January of 1999, I invited myself into Redmond’s next meeting with the Mayor. It took me less than 5 minutes to realize that a deal had already been struck, and that the Mayor was just marking time until the Governor dropped the other shoe. As Redmond talked on and on, Archer’s eyes glazed over; he could not avoid displaying his non-interest. Redmond had just been seeing what he wanted to see. Mayor Archer was simply between a rock and a hard place. Even then, the City’s fiscal crisis was the Mayor’s first concern. He hoped to cement a deal in which State Revenue Sharing would be continued. This was crucial to the financial viability of the City. Governor Engler had him over the barrel.
So what happened? The Board was shoved to the side in March, 1999, and a new Reform Board was appointed by the Mayor. One of their first actions was to contract with Barton Malow to take over the $1.5 Billion construction management program. Barton Malow took an entirely different approach to the task. The contracting community does not like renovation work, because it is highly risky; you never really know what is behind those walls until you open them, and a contract commitment can often become a loss rather than a profit. On the other hand, brand new construction is very much predictable, and your profit margin is fairly well secure. So, instead of trying to repair 100% of our buildings over a 20-year period, they decided to use ALL of these funds to build a bunch of new schools and to spend ALL of the money quickly within a three- or four-year period. These new buildings could only accommodate 10% of the existing student body. The other 90% of our students were left to attend school in buildings, which had already been neglected for 65 years, and now could not be fixed for yet another 40 years. And three of those new buildings ended-up costing twice as much as any other school building that had ever been built in this State, including the High School of Fine Arts, which ended-up costing more than twice the original estimate of $35 Million.
Back when we proposed our $1.5 Billion effort to bring all of our schools up to what was the best that we could actually afford, that being a clean, safe, warm and well-lighted learning environment, 93% of Detroit homeowners were paying their taxes, and while tax values were slowly decreasing, that decrease was very slow. But employment was then up, and home values normally move up and down with take-home pay levels. We did not foresee this day when only 50% of Detroiters are paying their taxes, and more than a third of the City has lost all of its taxable value. When such a situation occurs, and the total collected tax revenue from the capital improvement millage is not enough to pay off the aggregate bond interest and redemption sums, then the difference has be taken from the District’s operating funds, or bond-holders will be able to sue the district for a Judgement Order, requiring all Detroit property-owners under the full faith and credit provision of the bonds, to pay into a deficiency fund, to pay-off the bond obligations.
So, had the construction program been carried-out as originally intended, we would still have much of this unexpected debt to pay, but we would still have an array of reasonably useable school buildings, and many more of them would probably be in operation. One big reason that parents have fled the Detroit Public Schools to Charter Schools and to other School Districts, was because so many of our buildings were in such a decrepit and increasing state of disrepair.
Well, let me return now to my personal odyssey. How in the world did a disheveled, fat, inarticulate white guy get on the Detroit School Board? It was not easy for the Detroit Open School to survive, not because it was not producing outstanding results, but exactly because it was. Administrators across the District, and union leaders, were embarrassed that their students could not do as well, so their solution to this was to eliminate the Open School, so that no further embarrassing comparisons could be made. In 1982, I became a member of the Open School Liaison Committee; our job was to go to every regional and central Board meeting, and to read through every item on the agenda, and through all of its back-up materials, to scout-out items, which were being proposed to harm us, and there were many. We would then have to alert the parent body and turn-out 200 to 300 angry parents at their next meeting and intimidate the Boards to back-off. Sometimes, we even had to picket the District headquarters building downtown and demand a meeting with Superintendent Arthur Jefferson to staunch a plan to harm us. Because of these frays, I was eventually asked by the Administration to become a member of the City-Wide School Community Organization, which supposedly promoted parent involvement in all of the District’s schools. By and large, that was an effort by the administration to “look like” they were responsive to parent concerns, but not much truly came from any of these recommendations.
But through this body, I did link-up with leaders from some of the other alternative schools, who shared some of our challenges, and out of that finally emerged by 1988 what you may remember as the HOPE Reform Campaign. Just as today, the District school board was made up of 11 elected members, 4 who ran City-wide, and 7 who were elected by district. They each ran for 4-year terms, but the district and city-wide races were 2 years apart. These reform candidates, Hayden, Olmstead, Patrick and Blanding, swept all of the old city-wide members out the door in the November, 1988 elections on a wave of public disgust with the board. I was the unofficial secretary to these four. I wrote most of their position papers before the election and was a part of all of their think-sessions over the next year.
Meanwhile the district board member from my district in Northwest Detroit did all he could to sandbag the reform effort, which resulted in a recall campaign that November. It was the first successful recall campaign in anyone’s memory. Other district board members were jarred by the recall, and agreed with the HOPE Team to appoint me to the board until a special election could be held. Recall law required that after a recall, that candidates had to get over 1700 good signatures of registered voters from within the district on a petition within just a brief 10-day window in order to qualify for a special election. This window occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend during sub-zero weather. Folks from the Open School went out that frigid weekend and obtained 3,300 signatures for me. No one else qualified. So I was the only person on the special election ballot come February, but that unexpired term ended at the end of the year, and I had to run for a full 4-year term that August and November.
I had lots of help. Two of my four campaign managers later became well known in Detroit and the State. These were Jennifer Granholm and Freman Hendrix. But, I was also opposed by Mayor Young. I had been one of his appointees from 1973 until 1983, but I had left to become legal counsel and policy advisor to the Wayne County Commission in 1983. The Mayor wanted someone in my board seat who was not independent, but beholden to his direction. That is just the nature of hard-ball politics in the big city. I focused my campaign upon the true grassroots and personally knocked on at least 10,000 of the 43,000 doors in my district that summer, and my supporters knocked on most of the rest. The Mayor put more than 100 of his appointees out in the August primary on paid City-time to work the polls against me. But I had more than 300 true volunteers out working for me. We covered all 43 polling places for the entire 13 hours from 7 AM to 8 PM. In November, he sent his paid troops elsewhere, and I prevailed over his hand-picked guy by a 58/42 margin. So that’s how I ended-up on the Board, and how I gained an insider’s understanding of how education sausage is actually made in the big city.
HOW TO MAKE REAL IMPROVEMENT IN DETROIT EDUCATION:
First, basically, change the reigning community orientation as to what has gone wrong, why, and what we can still do to fix much of it without any more dollars, because, state-wide, most taxpayers are no longer willing to chip-in even one more dollar, not even for their local school district.
Then, strive to get folks all across the City on the same page as to how to really deal with it. In this City, our churches provide about the only feasible means of embedding this word. Politicians, school board members, and charter authorizers are too opportunistic with their personal career agendas to be of any help.
Whenever you have a broad community problem, you can expect that a swarm of opportunists will scurry to the situation like roaches, with all manner of top-down solutions.
As Mark Twain (Samuel Clements) was quoted: For every complex problem, there is an obvious and simple, but also totally wrong solution!
These days, that problem is popularly seen as a lack of accountability, and the simple solution is yet another top-down model for the “administration” of education; that’s what charter-authorizing institutions relish. It is extremely gratifying to Legislators and others to be widely seen as the champion of progress, even when they aren’t.
For politicians who are eager to respond to serious community concerns, this presents a sterling opportunity to plunder the problem for all manner of political payoffs. Just as with all previous top-down ideas which have failed make things better, the next top-down panacea will just make things worse. And foundation directors and newpaper editors are not very much better. They all want to make their “mark” on our society, by coming-up with some magical solution, with the next “fresh idea”, when none is realistically to be had.
You only need to go back and think seriously about what you should have learned in Sociology 101 to find your answers. And these answers are just as complex as the problem. Unfortunately, this college course is usually taught to Freshmen as a “memorization of definitions” exercise, and almost no one leaves the course with a true understanding of the human condition, its potential, and its limitations.
To break the issue down into its most basic components, in at least 2/3s of the cases, getting a good education requires a series of caring and constant teachers, a caring and constant parent, a set of caring and constant school-mates, as well as a caring student. Absent any or all of these components, the average outcomes are bound to be dismal. There is truly no viable substitute. There are “exceptional cases”, but statistically, these are true in less than 5% of the total array; they do not significantly change the average outcome. While the effective education of children is not rocket-science, most concerned people seem to buy-into an array of seemingly rational, but counter-productive approaches.
MENTORING: One of the most commonplace “solutions” to this “problem” is to encourage well-meaning folks to volunteer as mentors to students, that is, to become a good-parent substitute. But, the person who really needs mentoring in these situations, is not the student, but the parent. The whole scenario of mentoring communicates to deficient parents that the education of their children is not really their obligation, but somehow that of “society”. Instead of strengthening child/parent bonds, we unintentionally weaken and dissolve them. But, no one seems to want to correct these “well-meaning” efforts to avoid addressing the missing or deficient parent. We do no one a favor by weakening our expectations of them. The most of us actually do whatever it is that we do in response to what others expect of us. We are who we are because of those mutual expectations, and not because we have some innate moral compass. That’s a proven fact: Deal with it!
ADMINISTRATION: There is a commonplace notion that all you need to do to improve educational outcomes is to have a strong and vigorous administration of the “system”. There is in fact nothing “magical” about administration, and there is a lot about it which is totally “toxic” to such outcomes. But, there are scores of candidates for such an “opportunity” to crack the whip, who are ready and willing to take-on that impossible, but “important” task.
The one biggest reason that teacher’s unions are adamant and inflexible in their positions, is because teachers, for decades, have been abused and victimized by asshole administrators, by folks who have mainly been promoted into their positions by virtue of a network of whom they know, and whom they brownnose, rather than by a record of what they have been able to engender in their staff and students. Good Principals are rare. But “top-down” “crackdowns” invariably reward the worst assholes in the system.
FREQUENT CHANGES IN “ADMINISTRATION”: Even the most caring and motivated teachers burn-out when they face wave after wave of “reform”. It takes an extremely high level of collaboration over a long period of time between the members of a teaching staff for them to become the very best that they can be. But, when those efforts are gutted every two or three years by a change in the oversight administration, or by a churning of staffing and students, they just quit trying. If you can not promise at least a five-year duration and stability of any new effort, no one in the classroom will give it any serious attention. Most teachers are really caring and concerned, but have been made cynical and unresponsive by frequent past waves of “administrative reform”.
TURNOVER RATES: The class turnover rate in most Detroit schools runs between 20% and 50% each year. Even the charter schools have high turn-over rates, because even caring parents have been led to have unrealistic expectations of these schools. The parents of children in our neighborhood schools which have high turn-over rates are usually especially poor, “unreliable”, and unreachable. They can’t afford their rents; they are always on the move, wary of sharing their contact info, and trying to avoid their creditors. So, the school staff tends to “write them off”, and be glad that they have gone somewhere else. For an effective education, children need a high level of continuity with the same teachers and the same classmates. If we are really serious about educating “hard-to-educate” children, we have to zero-in on this situation, and stop this endless churning. But, this is not so much of an administrative problem, as it is one of parent education and a steadfast willingness to stay put.
DELETERIOUS CLASS CONFLICT: We expect our teachers in this State to be college-educated, with at least a bachelors degree, and a State Certificate. Most folks who qualify on those measures also carry with them class values and antipathies which repel them from establishing positive personal relationships with the parents of most of their students. This is truly one of the biggest problems in the education of “our” children. This social gap is awesome, but no one deals with it “up-front”. It can be done, but it often means a series of grueling and sometimes even hazardous encounters. Our systems presently do very little to make these to be positive and mutually rewarding encounters.
This is not to disparage either middle class nor anomie values. But the bottom-line fact is that anomie values are not supportive of economic progress. Over the past hundred years, about 70% of Americans have found their way out from those anomie values into the middle class, and that has been a very good thing. This is not at all an easy transition. Those material things which are highly valued by today’s anomie folk, have been largely enabled by the collective efforts of our country’s growing middle class. We need some serious efforts to bridge this gap.
I use the term “anomie”, carefully and advisedly for want in our language of a more precise term. It has attached a trickbag of unintended meanings and sometimes counterproductive results.
There is among most of the poorer people in our midst a much different way and style of life than there is among those of us who think of ourselves as middle-class. Middle-class folks share a large array of common values and cooperative behaviors; most place a high value upon both their independence to make their own decisions, but also upon the need to cooperate and stand in solidarity, which often means curbing our need to be independent.
Anomie folks also place a high value upon their independence, but do not place a high value upon their solidarity and dependence upon one another. Their relations with one another are far more kinetic, like pool balls which bounce off of one another after the cue ball is hit. They place a high value upon venting and “telling it like it is”, no matter what the consequences, even when it devolves into violent confrontations. They do not exactly perceive themselves as “belonging to a class”, but rather of individually being excluded from the materialistic mainstream of the economy.
At one time, before the advent of large industrialized cities, these poorer folks lived more closely among middle class folks, and most were absorbed into it. Over time, these poorer folks have become more and more concentrated and isolated in our oldest urban centers, where there is less and less contact and less and less interaction or integration into the mainstream. In this growing isolation, the social “anomie” which these folks embrace and to which they daily respond, only cements and aggravates the worst consequences of their personal orientation to this world. These folks are not without “moral values”, but the values to which they do subscribe do not often lead to a positive economic result.
TEACHER TURNOVER: It helps greatly when teachers stay-put in the same school for many, many years. Students, who also stay-put, actually look forward to the day when they have Ms. or Mr. So&So for a teacher. In our current seniority system, whenever a school is closed, or some other series of ”bumping” rights are triggered, teachers have a bargained contract right to transfer to some other more seemingly inviting situation at another school. That can result in a long series of “bumpings” and transitions. None of this helps sustain the stability that most students need to sustain their bonding with the aims of the school. If there is one thing that our school systems need, however funded, to act on behalf of their students, it is to reward teachers for staying with the same student body, year-after-year.
Incidentally, the dysfunction in our current system is not just a “black thing”. This “system” was borne way back before 1960’s when the administration of the school system was a clearly “white thing”. Teachers organized as soon as the law allowed in 1965, because they had already been abused by generations of white administrative “assholes”. Once black folks became eligible for promotion, they unfortunately were absorbed-into this same “good ole boy” asshole system of administration. And so it goes, on and on.
THE BIGGEST LIE: JUST LEAVE THE TEACHING UP TO US! Both the Charter Schools and the Public Schools in their advertising for more students chant the same big lie: Bring your children to us, and leave the teaching to us! Education is presented as a huge public service, and not as an intensive long-term collaboration in effectively raising one’s children. The crucial collaborative issue is left intentionally untouched because each of these schools is competing for your business, and none are willing to promise less than the competition. Why do they do this? Simply, because they are first of all competing for limited State dollars; actually educating children is totally a secondary concern. Until the entire community and all school systems are ready to acknowledge that long-lasting parent collaboration is crucial to student success, there will be no serious improvement.
Yes, there are some small differences which can be attributed to teacher training and effectiveness, but even the highest conceivable level of teacher preparedness can not compensate for a lack of long-lasting positive parent support. The current system makes it seem to parents that all they have to do is to be a concerned consumer and an active critic of what the schools have to offer. When a parent becomes simply a staunch consumer critic of the school system rather than an active and positive collaborator, the relationship and the underlying message to their children becomes totally negative.
SOME SAY, JUST PUT MORE DOLLARS INTO THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM, SO AS TO AVOID PUTTING MORE AND MORE DOLLARS INTO THE ADULT JUSTICE SYSTEM.
Very, very few kids who do well in school, and who are well-bonded to the mores of our society become career criminals. Fortunately, most juvenile delinquents grow out of their deviance within five years. Our best bet to curb growing criminal justice system costs is to do a better job in making sure that our students are doing well in the first place. While some of this may require more dollars up-front, most of it does not. So, this argument is best totally ignored, so long as be place our efforts into really improving how we go about educating our children. (For an extensive expansion on this point, check-out the analysis which I wrote in 1980 on How Schools Can Preclude Delinquency, which is also on this web-site.)
Many years ago, I visited and evaluated the residential high school program at the Glen Mills Schools just South of Philadelphia. Glenn Mills has been a place for troubled and orphaned youth for almost 200 years. Since 1970, it has zeroed-in on gang leaders from Philadelphia, young folks in deep trouble with the law, but who have a lot of proven self-direction, meaning that the schools cherry-pick their students. 95% of their graduates go on to college; their athletic teams dominate the Delaware Valley Athletic Association; and student morale is similar to what you find at Detroit Catholic Central. But the cost runs $75,000 per student/year, which is ten times more than Detroit gets from the State Foundation Grant per student. Glenn Mills is impressive, but it also provides a sobering understanding of how much it takes to successfully educate a child from an inner-city who has no positive parental support.
VERY FEW OF THESE FACTORS REQUIRE ADDITIONAL FUNDING FOR OUR SCHOOL SYSTEMS, AND UNTIL THEY HAVE BEEN FULLY ADDRESSED, THERE IS LITTLE POINT IN CAMPAIGNING FOR MORE AND MORE FUNDING FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION, PARTICULARLY WHEN THOSE WHO ARE EXPECTED TO PAY THE PRICE ARE THE MIDDLE CLASS OF THIS COUNTRY, WHO MUST SACRIFICE MORE AND MORE, EACH AND EVERY YEAR, FROM THE LESS AND LESS THAT THEY EARN.
For more than the past 30 years, State and local public revenues have been shrinking and shrinking along with the shrinkage of middle-class earnings. Middle-class people are no longer willing to pay-out any more for any of these public services for which they have become accustomed to expecting, including public education. Higher education has seen much bigger cut-backs than K-12 education, but almost no one is willing to increase taxation for either purpose. That means that we must place our primary emphasis upon those very few things which can be done WITHIN what little revenue remains. And frankly, that just requires the plain guts to do what is necessary, and not more revenue. Obviously, this rules out any role for those venal politicians who have exploited this issue and left our school systems in their currently pathetic state, to ride-in once again with another glorious “administrative” miracle.
If the array of issues outlined above have not been seriously addressed by our whole communities, any increase in State funding for education will become a total waste and will produce absolutely nothing better, and we will have delayed doing anything serious about this crisis for another ten or twenty years. That is the sad, but inevitable fact, and there is no point in ignoring or denying it.
So, let’s take a clearer look at three of those ideas which are being widely pitched these days:
- Because it is “unfair” for some folks to not have equal access to all available educational options, we need to develop a bussing system which provides equal access to everyone.
Bussing is extremely expensive, and the cost has to come in today’s compressed financing out of the State Foundation Grant, meaning at the expense of class size, teacher pay or further neglect of building maintenance needs. Bussing costs somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 per rider, out of an overall $7,550 State stipend. That means something like a 30% increase in class size, or a 20% cut in teacher pay. At the bottom line, this proposal is nothing more than irresponsible class warfare. (I’m not necessarily opposed to class warfare when the issue is winnable.) But this issue is both unwinnable and irresponsible.
2. There has to be some overarching control group as to where charter schools are allowed to exist, because far too many are located in the center of the City, which denies access to many folks in the outlying neighborhoods.
There is only one key reason why so many charter schools are located in the center of the City, and that is because these are the only locations which are most accessible to the most of their consumers. If they were located anywhere else, they would become economic failures, because they would be too inaccessible. This complaint is simply a strategy to hamstring charter schools and make them fail economically. I can understand why advocates who support a central school district would pursue this argument. But at the bottom line, it does nothing to actually improve the education of Detroit’s children. This argument is all about providing continuing good compensation to the folks employed by the existing, but highly dysfunctional, public school system. Yes, very few of these folks are personally responsible for this sorry situation, and should therefore be held accountable for it. But life is not necessarily fair, and that is how the cookie crumbles.
3. There has to be some overarching standards of accountability for all charter and conventional public schools.
This seems on the surface to be a reasonable expectation. But the devil is in the details. Overall, this comes down as to how well students do on the State standardized tests, and the drill across the board is to teach to these tests. I went through this exercise at the Detroit Open School, where teachers were encouraged to totally ignore these tests, and were asked instead to nurture kids to learn how to learn, from their classmates, their friend, their families, and their neighbors. At the bottom end, those kids always smashed those tests, because doing well was simply the outcome of having had a good education, of learning how to learn. Teaching to the test is the absolute worst way to teach kids how to learn and to become competent thinking adults.
Yes, I do think that charter schools could do a much better job than they have thus far. But, I also think that charter schools have a much bigger potential for improving educational outcomes than a huge, but highly dysfunctional educational bureaucracy, like the DPSCD. But that also depends upon both the general public and the parents of school-age children clearly understanding what is actually the best for this next generation. If they instead want to proceed down this losing spiral of trying to hold the “system” accountable for these outcomes, then it doesn’t make much difference which poison they choose.
It also all depends largely upon who has the capacity and willingness to take-on the risk of establishing new charter schools, schools which actually meet the needs of students and our emerging society. This has to come from folks who are not just looking for a way to milk the educational cow for their own economic benefit. And that in turn depends upon what guidelines that a competent Legislature lays down regarding the authorization of charter schools. Many of the current criteria may seem to be justified, but are totally counterproductive to a desirable outcome.
4. We just need to copy the Tennessee reform model. Within 5 years, Tennessee rocketed from the lowest 25% of schools in the nation to the top 25%.
Some of that is true, but the reforms made no difference in the inner-cities of Tennessee’s major cities. There, they are still struggling with the same model that has been used in Michigan for the bottom performing 5% of their schools. And it has had the same dismal result. Bottom-line: Tennessee has successfully increased the gap between the most of its schools and those in its inner-cities.