Detroit plans to close more than a quarter of its public schools at a time when private foundations are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape the Detroit public school system. The foundations are pushing for mayoral control of the school and the opening of dozens of new schools, including charter schools. The plan is seen by critics as a move to privatize the city’s school system. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Detroit. A central part of the plan to downsize Detroit centers on the city’s school system. The Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, announced plans last month to close more than a quarter of the city’s public schools.
ROBERT BOBB: The plan calls for the closure of forty-five facilities in June, with most programs moving to new or renovated facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: The school closings come at a time when private foundations are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to reshape the Detroit public school system. The foundations are pushing for mayoral control of the school and the opening of dozens of new schools, including charter schools.
Doug Ross of New Urban Learning spoke at a recent news conference outlining a new initiative called Excellent Schools Detroit.
DOUG ROSS: The vision of this group is an education marketplace in Detroit with common high-performance standards in which DPS, charter and private schools compete for students around those academic standards. No more ambivalence about whether good performing charters harm DPS. Robert Bobb, as you heard, has said, welcome more competition. He’s told us over and over again, bring it on. Well, that’s what we intend to do for the benefit of Detroit kids. So bottom line, the old plan said to parents, wait, be patient, give us another five years to improve the school where your child goes. This plan says, uh-uh, waiting is over. We’re going to close low-performing schools. We’re going to open new ones. And parents, now you have to take the initiative to go find the best school for your child. Big difference, new day.
AMY GOODMAN: But the plan to transform Detroit’s schools is seen by some as a move to privatize the city’s school system. The elected school board has already been stripped of much of its power, as a state-appointed emergency financial manager now has full financial authority for the school district. And private foundations are ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars to fund school reform, but the public has little to no say in how the money is spent.
To talk more about this, we’re joined now by Nate Walker, a former Detroit schoolteacher, now a member of the school development team at the Boggs Educational Center. The Boggs Center is developing a plan to open its own neighborhood-based school next year.
Nate, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain the way the system works. As I read about what’s happening here in Detroit and talk to people, I am continually thinking about, well, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and about Arne Duncan recently, the Education Secretary, saying the best thing to happen to education in this country is after Katrina in New Orleans.
NATE WALKER: Yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting that New Orleans has now become the model for school reform. And it —
AMY GOODMAN: There, they closed the public schools —
NATE WALKER: Absolutely. There’s —
AMY GOODMAN: — fired all the teachers, who were unionized.
NATE WALKER: Yeah. And so, in New Orleans there’s four public schools that have opened now, and it’s pretty much a charter-run school system. And in many ways, that’s what’s happening in Detroit. Right before Robert Bobb announced that forty-four schools would be closing, the Skillman Foundation, with other foundations, announced that they would be opening seventy new schools in the next five years. So, currently in Detroit 70 percent of students in Detroit go to Detroit public schools, and 30 percent go to charter schools. The Excellent Schools Plan, which was announced about a month ago, intends that, by 2015, 25 percent of students will go to Detroit public schools, and 75 percent will go to charter schools. So you can see the shift in who’s going to be providing education in the city of Detroit.
AMY GOODMAN: How many kids go to school here in Detroit, and how has that number changed?
NATE WALKER: Well, when I began teaching in 2002, there was 160,000 students in the Detroit public schools, and currently there’s about 88,000. So you can see that number has almost been cut in half. And, you know, families are leaving the city, so students are going to other districts and other places, but there’s also students who are leaving the public school system to enroll at charter schools, as well.
And so, it’s interesting, in the context of the shift of who’s going to be providing education, there’s a couple things happening. I think first, as was mentioned in Doug’s clip when he spoke, the foundations are not only going to be providing money to start new schools, they’re also setting up an accountability network. So now they’re going to be deciding what constitutes a good school to be closed or to be opened. And so that’s totally taken out of the realm of the public sphere, where parents and community members decide on a type of education that is necessary for the city. And foundations and folks who aren’t necessarily considering those voices are deciding what’s good education.
And in a certain way, that’s going to be driven by what we call student achievement, right? And in a sense, student achievement is a number of how students perform on test scores. It’s a bottom line. And so, it’s a system that’s being started and developed on this assumption of a bottom line that’s the most important thing about schooling.
And it’s changed what a parent’s role in schooling is. So before, where a parent would have a voice, either by running for school board or contributing to how education happens, now they’re delegated to the role of consumer, where they exercise their choice as to where they can enroll, but not necessarily how they can be involved in the schooling process. And that’s very similar to what’s happened in New York City, when Joel Klein took control of schools. You see the shift where folks call for parental involvement, but not in any of the decision making, so be involved on our terms, because we know what’s best for your children.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what schools are closing, what schools are opening?
NATE WALKER: And so the closing plans aren’t finalized. They’ll be finalized in about two or three weeks, after town hall meetings have been conducted at the buildings that will be closed. And those town hall meetings were sort of very scripted and regulated as to who could participate in them and who had a voice there.
But in the particular neighborhood that I live in, they’re moving a school of choice in the school district. So this is a Detroit public school that you have to essentially apply to get into. And so, that school is staying open and moving to a new building. The neighborhood schools, which serve neighborhood students, are being closed. And so, in this particular case, Burton International is moving to Owen, which was a neighborhood school, and Owen’s program is being demolished and no longer going to be there.
AMY GOODMAN: And what will happen to the kids who were going to Owen?
NATE WALKER: Well, they’ll have the option, I suppose, to apply to Burton or to make a new school choice, which becomes a —- is problematic, because as they’re opening new schools in Detroit, there’s a specific model that they’re opening, and that’s a model where parents have to sign contracts to sort of say this is what we’ll do as part of the school community, and students have to sign contracts. And so, in that process, right, it opens the door for folks to be pushed out. And so, if they’re being pushed out of charter schools, and now the public -—
AMY GOODMAN: Why would contracts push people out?
NATE WALKER: Well, if a school mandates that you’re on time every single day, and if you’re not on time, then the school may not be for you, and you are in a situation where you can’t make it, because you don’t have the transportation, or you — life may somehow get in the way, right? Some of the contracts stipulate, like if you’re absent four times during the school year — well, that’s sort of unrealistic, I think, to expect that families who will now be traveling across town to get to a specific school will be able to be there on time every single day of the school year. It doesn’t necessarily consider the situation that folks’ lives are complex.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the kind of organizing that’s being done right now. And also, who is deciding the schools that are being opened? Who is in control of the school system?
NATE WALKER: So the organizing that’s happening now in Detroit is primarily around the school closures. And so, myself and some folks, some former teachers also, are trying to organize a vision for a new type of neighborhood school, because if neighborhood schools are closing, we are trying to figure out how we can set up a school in our neighborhood that considers the voice of the community. And so we hope to organize folks around that idea and around this neighborhood school.
In terms of who decides how schools are open, in Michigan, schools become chartered through public universities, through the existing school district or through a community college. And so there’s sort of a small network of universities in Michigan right now that charter schools. And these are very competitive spots. I think there’s — one university is accepting applications now for about three or four spots, and eighty folks applied.
And one of the challenges within that is, last year, three charter schools were opened in the city, and of those three schools, they were being managed by sort of national corporate management companies. And so, if citizens or parents or teachers want to open a charter school in Detroit, it’s very difficult. It’s a very difficult process because they’re competing with sort of corporate management companies who have a fast lane into the authorization process.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk a little about the Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, the tradition he comes out of?
NATE WALKER: Well, I mean, I think Robert Bobb is making decisions — he was brought in as the Emergency Financial Manager, so he’s making decisions, at first, anyway, in the realm of what’s best financially for the district. It is a shrinking district, as well, and so there were certain decisions that had to be made when your student population drops from — in half over the course of five or six years. Currently, he’s pushing very hard to get control of academics, as well. And in that process, he’s very much making decisions with Skillman and the charter schools who are the operators who are now opening schools also.
AMY GOODMAN: And the school that you were a teacher in, who is it run by?
NATE WALKER: Doug Ross of University Prep and New Urban Learning.
AMY GOODMAN: And Doug Ross is really spearheading the whole charter schools movement here?
NATE WALKER: Yeah, he absolutely is. And it’s interesting. He started University Prep under what was called the Big Picture model, modeled after a charter school in Rhode Island in 2000 or 2001. And this was a school that was sort of based on the premise of project learning and community involvement. And about three or four years ago, there was a shift in University Prep, where they sort of began to shift their model. You start to see some different things happen with the curriculum. They became very much more test-oriented and much more concerned with how they can move their bottom line of student achievement than necessarily, I think, participating with the students.
And so, when I worked for Doug, a group of teachers and myself came together and said, you know, there’s a model of education here that’s worth defending. And so, we began to organize about how we could defend that. And Doug was certainly not supportive of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Because?
NATE WALKER: Because I think he had a different vision. I think his vision was to replace the public school system. And he’s gone as far as saying this. But he had a vision of replacing the public school system with starting certain schools that were very easy to model. An education is messy work, and at times you can’t have a cookie cutter model across communities. And so, when we invested in making this school better, it didn’t necessarily fit the model that he was trying to push on the rest of the city.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, talk about the school that you and members of the community are organizing now, that the Boggs Educational Center is organizing.
NATE WALKER: Well, the founders of the Boggs Educational Center met in 2002 at the Boggs Center, where Grace was hosting discussions called the Freedom Schooling Discussions.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Grace Lee Boggs.
NATE WALKER: This is Grace Lee Boggs, yeah. And during those discussions, we talked about what transformative education would look like in the city of Detroit. And so, we began to tackle questions like why are we educating people, and how can we educate them in a way that deepens their humanity and ultimately empowers them to become agents in their own lives? And those discussions for us continued for seven more years, where we began to formally meet and talk about how we can take some of that theory of education as transformation and turn it into a program for our community. So we’re in the process where we’ve began to develop our curriculum and the type of school that we want, one that becomes a community hub. We don’t intend on opening for another year, because we want to do a year of intensive community planning, where we engage folks to really invest in the process of planning a school.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nate, I want to thank you very much for be with us. Nate Walker, former Detroit teacher and member of the school development team at the Boggs Educational Center, which is named for Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs.