By Rania Khalek
If Milton Friedman, father of the free market, were alive today, I imagine he would be jumping with joy at the prospect of the abandonment of public education for private, for-profit charter schools.
Back in 2005, following the devastation of hurricane Katrina, Friedman wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal where he said â€œThis is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.â€ Soon after, Friedmonites rushed into New Orleans for the chance to implement what Friedman had long envisioned. With the help of the Bush administration, they dissolved the public school system and in its place built a network of publicly funded charters run, not by educators, but by private entities that made their own rules.
At the time, New Orleans residents alerted the rest of the country, that what was happening to their city was only the beginning and it wouldnâ€™t be long before it spread to our neighborhoods. In 2006, Bill Quigley, a local lawyer and activist warned:
We know that what is happening in New Orleans is just a more concentrated, more graphic version of what is going on all over our country. Every city in our country has some serious similarities to New Orleans. Every city has some abandoned neighborhoods. Every city in our country has abandoned some public education, public housing, public healthcare, and criminal justice. Those who do not support public education, healthcare, and housing will continue to turn all of our country into the Lower Ninth Ward unless we stop them. Why do we allow this?
If only we had listened. Soon after New Orleans came the drastic transformation of the Chicago school system by Obamaâ€™s Labor Secretary Arne Duncan, New York City schools by Mayor Bloomberg, and Washington DC schools by Michelle Rhee. Which brings us to Detroit.
Following the passage of Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyderâ€™s â€œFinancial Martial Law,â€ Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Robert Bobb is closing 8 schools and selling 45 to charter companies. DPS is currently preparing a charter school board through training sessions provided by the National Charter Schools Institute, which had more than 70 charter operators and entrepreneurs in attendance just this month. In addition, DPS has hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) to review applications. NACSAâ€™s president, Greg Richmond, worked with charter schools set up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and claims â€œThe system opened up to the people of New Orleans in a way it hadnâ€™t beforeâ€¦Now there are dozens of opportunities to get involved.â€
In sharp contrast to the lingering unemployment that plagues Detroit, the auctioning off of Detroitâ€™s schools is taking place with breathtaking speed. Gov. Snyder is on a mission to reinvent public education. He is calling for more measurements of student and teacher performance, while at the same time proposing deregulation and more teacher autonomy. He says â€œWe have to put much more emphasis on proficiency, on growth, on measurements and results than we have had in the pastâ€ and â€œMichiganâ€™s public schools need to more rigorously measure studentsâ€™ academic growth, but with fewer state rules to make that happen.â€
Detroit residents have already started protesting. Just last week, eight students, along with their children and some faculty members of the Catherine Ferguson Academy of Detroit, began a sit-in at the end of the school day in protest of EFM Robert Bobbâ€™s announcement to close the school. About a dozen or so were arrested by Detroit police for refusing to leave. The school is specifically designed for pregnant and teen parents and their children, and has a 90% graduation rate and 100% college and higher education acceptance upon graduation.
Gov. Snyder recently said his focus is a holistic approach to education from pre-natal to life-long learning. He says early childhood education is important and should involve â€œa public and private partnership.â€ If shutting down an award-winning school and arresting, rather than listening to the students he claims to care so much about, is his idea of a holistic approach, then Detroit is in for a treat.
Shanta Driver, National Chairperson of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), in an interview with Voice of Detroit at the sit-in, said it best:
The massive school closures that have been carried out in DPS since 2004 have led to the depopulation of Detroit and to the deepening financial crisis of the district. Public schools are being closed to make way for charters and are part of the national attack on public education. Today Detroit â€“ tomorrow, every city in America. The parents and students of Catherine Ferguson are fighting to maintain the right of every student in our nation to a free, quality public education. Every supporter of public education should do everything possible to support their fight and make sure they succeed.
Driver is warning us, as did the people of New Orleans in 2006. This corporately funded education reform movement that praises standardised tests, non-union teachers, and private management as the solution to the budget woes of Detroitâ€™s education system is a threat to us all.
Rania Khalek is a young, progressive activist with a passionate dedication to social justice. Check out her blog Missing Pieces or follow her on twitter @Rania_ak. You can contact her at email@example.com.