By Shea Howell
December 12, 2016
One of the clear casualties of this political moment is any semblance of a shared reality based in fact. Last week the Wall Street Journal offered a headline that demonstrated how out of touch they are with the truth of people’s lives. The headline of an opinion column penned by Detroit News editor Ingrid Jacques read, “How Trump’s Schools Chief Helped Turn Around Detroit.” The sub heading, which for most people in the city is an explanation for why public education is in trouble, read “There’s still work to do, but thanks to Besty DeVos more than half the city’s students attend charters.”
The text of the article begins with the real reason why the right wing loves Betsy Devos. Her education reform is primarily an attack on unions, and has nothing to do with education. The opening sentence defining the “turn around” is “To the dismay of teachers unions nationwide, President elect Donald Trump has picked Betsy DeVos” as the next education secretary. The thrust of the article then chronicles DeVos’s long history in promoting schools of choice “free from union constraints, “ and notes these schools “have flourished—especially in Detroit, where more than half of students attend charters.” Jacques then defends the virtues of charter schools with the lame claim, “charters are doing better.”
Better than what is unclear. By any reasonable standard the DeVos initiatives have been a failure. In the spring of this year, before the distortions of reality became so widely endorsed, the New York Times published a page one story with the headline, “Heralded Choice Fails to Fix Detroit Schools.” The online version states “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift.”
The Times article opens with the a summation of the move to charter schools saying Detroit “got competition, and chaos” and the DeVos backed initiatives have “produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.” The Times reports “half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.”
For profit charters now operate 80 percent of the charters in Michigan thanks to the efforts of DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project. Today, after nearly two decades of State control over Detroit schools they are “found to be the lowest performing urban school district on national tests.” The Times concluded, Detroit was “awash in choice but not quality.” It notes that efforts backed by DeVos to lift caps on the number of charters resulted in “twenty four charter schools have opened the since the cap was lifted in 2011. Eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below the districts dismal performance expanded or opened new schools.” These included schools operated by the Leona Group, an Arizona based for profit company identified by the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes as producing schools where students “grew less academically than students in the neighboring traditional public schools.”
The failure to protect our children or to think seriously about what it means to develop young people to make critical decisions in a democracy has forced many of us in Detroit to ask basic questions about education. What is the purpose of education today? What role do schools play in educating our children? What responsibility does the community have to offer education? How do we organize ourselves to engage young people in solving the problems we all face?
Rethinking how to raise our children as caring, socially responsible people will not come from the DeVos’s of the world. Their reality sees our children as sources of profit and our educated adults as threats. We in Detroit, and now the rest of the country, have to create a different reality, holding tightly to our children to protect them from this onslaught. This means finding ways to keep the reality of our lives and hopes central to all we do.