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Democratic questions

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

The elected Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Board moved swiftly to regain academic control of our schools. Under Public Act 4 (PA4) the elected school board was stripped of all financial and academic power, but it continued to meet in public settings and to discuss issues. As a result, the elected board was able to address urgent questions facing it.

Their actions have created a furor among those who back PA4 emergency managers (EMs) and who wish to see public education dismantled.

The Detroit News wrote an editorial claiming that after one meeting the “DPS board wreaks havoc.” Attributing such dire outcomes after such a brief period of time seems a bit of a stretch in logic, but it does show how fearful the corporate-foundation-Republican dominated Lansing elites are of democracy in any form.

It also shows how they intend to use the media to create a perception of “havoc,” dysfunction and chaos to scare people into voting for EMs to solve all of our problems.

The editorial objects to the fact that DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts will now have to meet with the elected board, saying “the two sides will be wasting a lot of time” in “unnecessary squabbles.” The editorial argues, “Roberts has made overtures to work with the board” but the “board has made it crystal clear they aren’t going to play nice.”

The implication is that the “board” is a problem. However, the editors conveniently overlook the public tensions that have existed between Roberts and the elected board. For example, Roberts claimed the board was “detrimental to the educational process” when it supported students who walked out protesting the closings of their schools and overcrowding of their classes. He was so furious he moved the elected board offices into a small room. Such actions by EM Roberts were childish and showed little understanding of the importance of students thinking and acting in independent, democratic ways.

While Roberts was chastising the elected board, people around the world sent messages of support to the students of Western International, congratulating them not only for standing up for themselves, but for launching a Freedom School where they could explore ideas, teach and learn with the community.

Roberts has been unable to grasp the intimate connection between public education, local control and democratic action.

The elected Board has been a consistent proponent of democratic, local control. Its members have been active in the efforts to challenge the initial EM legislation in court when Robert Bobb, Roberts’ predecessor, extended his powers into the academic realm. The court upheld the Board.

The Board challenged the legality of PA4 and supported the petition drive to overturn it. It resisted the effort by Roberts to extend his power to the Library Commission and it went to court to secure a ruling that it has the right and responsibility to resume control of the academic functioning of DPS.

These actions hardly reflect an irresponsible or thoughtless Board.

The specific action that seems to most upset the editors at the News was the Board’s request for a waiver from the state to be able to hire back teachers based on seniority, not performance reviews. The editors ignored the Board’s rationale for the action, even though their own paper reported that “schools would not open in time unless seniority is used to rehire laid-off faculty.” Roberts, who was in control until last week, is responsible for this lack of preparedness.

The battle to overturn PA4 is forcing all of us to ask, What does democracy mean? How do we make it real? What role does education play in fostering democratic principles and practices? These questions are not easily answered, but once asked, they do not disappear.

Contact Shea Howell at

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