By Dr. John Telford
The protests spreading across America have revealed our country’s discriminatory, divisive, and systemic societal inequalities with a renewed, sharper focus. One example of this inequity was the 1999 state takeover of Detroit’s public schools that proved to be the initial spearhead of a neo-Jim Crowist assault on African-American voters’ rights in Michigan. As we embark upon 2015, it’s important to note that the 1999 ruling engendered and sustains DPS’ free-falling tailspin under the weight of that unwarranted takeover and under subsequent “emergency” management which in effect began during the administration of then-Governor John Engler. One has to wonder how much of that DPS history newly reelected Governor Rick Snyder is aware of, or whether he has read the damning research data on the so-called “Educational Achievement Authority” (EAA). Having been crucially instrumental in freeing the city of Detroit from emergency management and bankruptcy, were the Governor now to follow up that liberative act by returning all Detroit public schools to the aegis of the duly elected board, he would become a national hero ideally positioned for nomination to the vice presidency in 2016, where he could conceivably benefit our state and the rest of the country, particularly given his recently expressed commitment to rescuing impoverished neighborhoods—specifically those in Michigan’s largest city.
At the time of the 1999 takeover, Detroit Public Schools boasted an approximate $100 million surplus—and its test scores were at the state midpoint and rising despite the city’s chronic social problems engendered by what nationally recognized urbanologist John A. Powell and I described in a May 5, 1999 Detroit Free Press column as “concentrated poverty” by race and by residence. However, Detroit voters had recently passed a $1.5 billion construction-bond millage, and individuals close to Gov. Engler were hungrily eying those potential contract bids. When DPS Emergency Manager Robert Bobb departed ten years later, he left the school system with test scores that were the worst in America and a $327 million deficit partially caused by payments to multiple out-of-town consultants whom he had rewarded exorbitantly. Also, in 2008 the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General audited DPS’ Title I records for 2004 – 2006 and issued a report that included $53,618,859 in negative findings which led to MDE placing DPS on high-risk status.
Bobb was succeeded as Emergency Manager by former General Motors executive Roy Roberts, who virtually gave away fifteen schools, including six high schools (one which was brand-new and cost $50.5 million) to the now-spectacularly failing EAA that was imposed only on 85-percent-black Detroit. EAA administrators—some who may face prosecution for fraud—subsequently trumped up and trumpeted some imaginary academic “accomplishments” in an unsuccessful attempt to garner federal funds. Lansing has curiously continued to prop up the EAA despite its declining enrollment, its rejection of Special Education students, and its gang problems, truancy problems, and other chronic student-misbehaviors—not to mention its plummeting test scores.
Many of the solutions for repairing the multiple damages that the takeover has visited upon Detroit’s public schoolchildren aren’t “rocket science.” They include eradicating the rampant truancy via strengthening Attendance Department staffing, ensuring that all early elementary school students learn to read via squeezing the class-size balloon to add students to upper elementary grades in order to reduce class size in the first and second grades, remedying secondary school students who didn’t learn to read, and providing compensatory alternative environments (reopening some closed elementary buildings) for the misbehavers and then surrounding them with social workers, remedial-reading staff, heightened security staff, etc., so that the teachers left behind can teach and those far more numerous students left behind who are behaving can learn. This didn’t happen during the disenfranchising takeover under emergency management—but it can definitely happen under restored DPS board governance.
John Telford is a recent interim Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. His 2010 autobiography A Life on the RUN – Seeking & Safeguarding Social Justice can be ordered at Barnes & Noble Booksellers or on Amazon. Contact him at DrJohnTelfordEdD@aol.com or (313) 460-8272. Hear him Sunday afternoons at 4:30 on WCHB NewsTalk1200.