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Death watch for our public schools?

The Muskegon Heights “model,” where education is turned over to charter schools and the local district remains as a shell to pay off the district’s debt, looks to be spreading to Highland Park as well. Is this an omen? What can we do?

Renowned education historian Diane Ravitch posted a story on her blog today about the Muskegon Heights and Highland Park stories, under the title Death Watch for Public Schools in Michigan. She writes about the situation in those districts, and about the emergency manager law that empowers the governor’s appointee to make this kind of decision, as an outsider – and her description is all the more frightening for that. Those of us who have lived with these debates and struggles over the last few years may have forgotten the enormity of it all: a state appointee, empowered to displace local elected officials, sell property, void contracts, and make any other decision without consulting the community.

Dr. Ravitch writes:

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration is closing down public schools in two districts in Michigan and turning the schools over to charter operators.

Michigan has a draconian law that permits the governor to appoint an emergency manager whenever a municipality or school district or other governmental entity is in financial distress. All democratically elected officials are superseded by the emergency manager. Democracy comes to an end. The emergency manager has a free hand to do as he or she wishes. Decisions are made by diktat, with no need to consult with the community whose children are involved. So much for choice….

In Muskegon Heights and in Highland Park, the emergency managers decided that the best way to pay down the debt in the school district was to hand the public schools off to charter companies. The district remains as a shell whose only purpose is to use property taxes to pay off the debt.

That’s how public education will die in two districts. There will surely be more. Fifty school districts in the state are running deficits, and emergency managers have been appointed in three of them – these two and in Detroit….

The emergency manager in Muskegon Heights laid off every employee, and the union was dissolved. Teachers in the district had an average annual salary of almost $50,000. They can reapply for their jobs with the charter operators, but may not have the same salary or benefits….

As I write this story together, I have this unpleasant sensation. I think my blood is boiling.

How could we have come to this point? And what are we going to do about it?

All of us at MIPFS share Dr. Ravitch’s dismay at this turn of events. Aside from the question of handing responsibility for educating some 2000 students over to for-profit charter networks (the two bidders on the Muskegon Heights system are for-profits), there is the question of why community-governed local schools are being dissolved for purely financial reasons. Charter advocates may hope that the new charter systems will offer academic improvements, but the only reason for taking these steps is to find a way out of the two district’s financial binds.

There may have been some poor management in the past – something that is not unique to public schools – but why is the deck so badly stacked against local districts that closing them is the best way out? When did we decide that we would prefer to provide a cheap education over a good one? (We should all know by now that you never get more than you pay for.)

I’m worried and angry, but not yet defeated. Here is my response to Dr. Ravitch’s post:

I don’t think community-governed public education is on its deathbed in Michigan, mainly because I believe that this crisis may help my fellow citizens wake up. We can watch and decry the situation as much as we want, but to make change we must take action.

Many of my allies in the pro-public education camp seem to feel that this assault is the brainchild of corporate interests and well-funded national interest groups. While they play a role, we must also realize that they have found enthusiastic allies among lawmakers who were elected on platforms of “downsizing government.” So-called “government schools” are at the top of their agenda.

These folks were elected by voters, voters who believed the rhetoric. I think the lawmakers believe it too, even if it is also in the financial interest of their allies.

To make change, we can’t stand by and wring our hands. We must organize, and not just among the choir. We must reach out to those same voters who sent the anti-government lawmakers to our state capitols and work to remind them of the value of education to our communities and the reasons why we have community-governed public education. Some will never listen, but others will remember, and think twice.

We can choose anger and blame, as the other side has done. Or we can reach out and rebuild the bonds of community, even with those who often disagree with us. Then, and only then, will we build lasting change.

And that’s what we are working towards: encouraging parents and others who care about public education to get organized and get involved – in their local schools and in state policy. Along the way, we are helping everyone to recall why we organize locally-governed public schools and how important they are to our communities.

Join us! Contact us about how we can help parents in your community get informed and involved. Join our action-alert mailing list to get state-wide legislative alerts. Most of all, get involved in your local schools and help be a part of the solution.

Together, we can make a difference!

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