U.S. Politics and the Economy

Detroit Teacher’s Strike

Detroit teachers strike against disaster capitalism

By Glen Ford

Detroit’s public school teachers stand at the front lines of the resistance to Black urban removal and the privatization of education in the United States. The teachers ended a two-day sick-out on Wednesday, May 4, 2016, after Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes assured their weak-kneed union leadership that the state-run system would honor its “contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned.” However, this grudging concession to contract law does not signal a retreat from the state’s two decades-long campaign to destroy Detroit’s public institutions and drain the city of its poor Black majority population. Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for the Detroit public schools would create the conditions to complete the privatization of a district that is already second only to New Orleans in charter school enrollment.

The local union satraps are spineless jellyfish who deposed the elected leadership at the behest of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who long ago surrendered to the Obama administration’s national charterization juggernaut. President Obama let it be known that he opposed the sick-out. “These kids aren’t getting educated, and that’s—that is a real problem, and one that the president’s deeply concerned about,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. The Obama administration collaborated with state and corporate leaders in the deal to bankrupt Detroit’s municipal government, in 2014—an arrangement presided over by Judge Steven Rhodes, before he was named Emergency Manager for the district’s schools.

The sick-outs began in November, led by union reformers under elected president Steve Conn and BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) activists. Conn says the actions should be called by their proper name. “This is a strike and we have got to continue to strike to victory, which means defeating Snyder’s plan to destroy our schools,” said Conn. Teachers strikes are illegal in Michigan.

The state has been spoon-feeding the district just enough money to avert a total structural collapse, while blaming the Detroit community for the “failure” of the public schools, which are nominally $3.4 billion in debt. However, except for a brief period from 2005 to 2008, an elected school board has not been in charge since the state takeover of 1999, under a Republican governor. Then, in 2009, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm imposed the first of a succession of emergency managers over the Detroit public schools. Thus, the state—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—should be held responsible for most of the Detroit system’s “debt” during the 21st century.

The whole concept of public school “debt” must be rejected. Public schools are not capitalist enterprises; they do not operate on a for-profit basis (unless they are charters), and are tied to state and federally imposed funding formulas that even elected school boards are helpless to alter, and which serve to reinforce huge disparities between white suburban and Black and brown urban districts.

Black communities cannot be held responsible for the racist hysteria of white flight, which relentlessly down-sized Detroit and its school population, robbing the system of per-pupil funding while the proportion of neediest students steadily increased and the physical school structures deteriorated—leading to Black flight from the Detroit schools. Nor can these communities be blamed when legislatures dominated by hostile whites facilitate the spread of urban charter school enterprises that they would never tolerate in their own communities.

The same corporate forces that rejoiced in the ethnic and class cleansing of New Orleans after Katrina, and that have schemed to rid Detroit of as many Black people as possible to pave the way for a “renaissance,” are at work in every urban center in the nation. Charter schools are the principal weapon to disenfranchise and destabilize Black communities. The public schools were the first target of the corporate demographic demolition strategy hatched in the 1990s to “rescue” the cities from Black and brown domination, under the guise of “reform.” Charter schools are multi-use destructive devices. They serve both to privatize the public education sphere and to disconnect the Black urban polity from issues of community governance and “development.” Once local democratic control is removed from schools, the same financial rationale can be deployed against the municipal government. Four years after Detroit’s schools were placed under an emergency financial manager (EFM) in 2009, the state imposed an EFM on the city in order to move Detroit into bankruptcy. Mass water cut-offs followed, designed to drive the poor out of town for lack of essential fluids. In EFM-run Flint, the water was poisoned. Charter schools play a key role in urban disaster capitalism, wrecking the community nexus of public education by draining the system of students and resources. They are an infestation of Trojan horses, positioned as “marketplace” alternatives to the public sphere—the antithesis of community control.

Detroit’s public school teachers did not go on sick-out just to collect a check or two. They are mounting a desperate defense against corporate dictatorship and ethnic cleansing of the cities.

Black Agenda Report, May 4, 2016