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The destruction of thousands of books and materials from the Highland Park Renaissance Academy library was a disturbing revelation. The library was known to hold significant items that told the stories of the African diaspora and Native American history. This priceless collection was intended to chronicle the lives of various peoples and instill pride in their posterity. The destruction of these records leaves a stain on the proud history of Highland Park.

Emergency Manager Donald Weatherspoon's undertaking to "consolidate" the library's collection and place it in a "secure environment" was an abysmal failure. It is dismaying to witness his lack of interest in the rectification of a tragedy that he created. Instead of trying to win community support and replacing the collection, he claims it was an "accident" and refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.

The reign of emergency managers has been a sorry display of Governor Rick Snyder's inability to effectively govern under democratic principles. His style of governing resembles that of a chairman of a corporate board: emergency managers as board members and citizens reduced to mere "customers." His CEO mentality does not allow for local governments to disagree with his decisions. Rather than work with municipalities, Governor Snyder's immediate reaction is to remove their elected governments and impose unqualified bureaucrats.

Tossing Highland Park Renaissance Academy's library collection into a dumpster is part of a larger trend. It shows that Snyder and his appointees believe that nothing is sacred, particularly knowledge. This corporate governing-style has reduced vital services and assets into mere commodities.

Examples of Snyder's governing shortcomings are many. The Education Achievement Authority has forced our children to participate in a failed experiment that does not allow for parental input or community consent. The irreplaceable masterpieces at the Detroit Institute of Arts are merely viewed as a pile of cash waiting to be thrown at a debt the citizens of Detroit did not create. As long as the bottom line is met, our Governor will continue ignoring the policy blunders caused by his appointed carpetbaggers.

History shows us that only the most perverse regimes suppressed their citizens and destroyed critical cultural institutions. Some of our leaders in Lansing have been no different and Mr. Weatherspoon has been an active participant in this unjust government. His actions further highlight Governor Snyder's inability to lead. Mr. Weatherspoon should help restore dignity to the schools of Highland Park by resigning. The power of an elected school board should be restored. Only then can the district begin addressing its issues and provide the city's children with the education they deserve.

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Today, May 6th, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Detroit to tour schools in the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) with Michigan's Republican Governor, Rick Snyder. The EAA is a highly-flawed, experimental education system that currently operates 15 schools in Detroit. Legislation is currently pending in the Michigan Senate to codify it into law and expand it to a statewide district that will take over the "lowest 5%" in terms of academic performance.

I felt compelled to approach Secretary Duncan and hand-deliver a letter to him outlining the many serious problems associated with the EAA.

Below is the full text of this letter:

May 6th, 2013

Mr. Arne Duncan, Secretary
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan,

I hope this letter finds you well. Welcome to Detroit. As you join Gov. Rick Snyder today to tour facilities in the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), I felt compelled to bring to your attention several grave issues with this experimental system.

I write today not only as a state senator from Detroit whose district encompasses several EAA schools, but as a father of three and a lawmaker who, in 2008-09, was joined by three Republicans and another Democrat in passing real education reforms through a divided Legislature ahead of your Race to the Top program. The issue of education reform is personal to me. Political correctness and party dogma do not affect the decisions I make, particularly when it comes to educating our children.  

Bills are being pushed through the Michigan Legislature today that would expand this experiment from its current 15 school territory in Detroit to a statewide system including the “bottom 5%” of schools in terms of academic performance. However, the EAA has only been in operation since September, 2012 – not even one full school year – and already it has revealed itself to be ineffective and corrupt.

Lack of Proven Academic Progress:

EAA leadership likes to tout their statistic that in their first district-wide assessment, following the baseline test in the fall, 27% of EAA students advanced one year in reading while 22% advanced one year in math. Looking past the fact that this means 73% in reading and 78% in math did not make such progress, the entire testing scheme used to make these evaluations was flawed by technological glitches that were not addressed until recently.

When the EAA legislation was considered before the Michigan House Education Committee, a teacher from Burns Elementary-Middle School, an EAA school, gave her account of the testing circumstances that garnered these results.

At the first baseline test, which is computer-based, some children’s login and password information did not work; the Internet stopped working multiple times during testing; some students lacked required headphones; others had to take their tests in the cafeteria because there was not enough classroom space.

A $2 million cash advance from the state of Michigan was supposed to address these glitches earlier this year, but the damage to the integrity of the EAA’s testing results, which are being used to advocate for expansion of the system, had already been done.

Lack of Experienced Educators:

Recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed information that the EAA has taken steps to leave unaddressed. The EAA has lost 12.6% of the teachers it began the year with. Students see instructors cycle in and out, making continuity and stability in the classroom impossible. At a March 12th meeting of the EAA board, a member of the administration even addressed what was called “separation concerns.”

Testimony given by the teacher from Burns School told the House panel that many middle school students did not have a full-time teacher in three of their four core subject areas for three months and substitute teachers often did not last an entire day. This comports with direct reports I have received from parents and educators indicating that a dozen Teach for America members walked off the job from Pershing High School, in my district, leaving pupils in the classroom last year. In some cases, athletic department staff are teaching students.

The FOIA documents also revealed that of the 356 teachers that remained by November, 51% had three or less years of experience while another 15% had only three to five years of experience.

Abuse of Children:

I have received reports of cruel treatment of students, including one child whose mouth was taped shut by an instructor for talking too much and another whose shoes were removed in the classroom for not paying attention.

Special needs children are not safe in the EAA, either. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Individualized Education Plans have been changed unilaterally by the EAA without input from – and sometimes as the result of intimidation of – parents, therapists and counselors. As you know, it is much more expensive to educate a special needs child, which leads to the EAA’s fiscal situation:

Financial Malfeasance:

Upon its inception, EAA leadership claimed 95% of funds would be dedicated to the classroom and 5% to administration and operation. Not even five months after opening its doors, those numbers have been revised to 90% and 10%, respectively. The EAA’s administration is bloated at the top, with exorbitant salaries paid to central staff members and each principal of the 15 current EAA schools paid tens of thousands of dollars more than their traditional public school counterparts.

It was recently reported that the EAA has received two $6 million loans from the already cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools (DPS) – so cash-strapped, indeed, that the Governor has seen fit to appoint an “Emergency Manager” to tend to its fiscal house. This occurred without the approval – or even knowledge – of the boards of DPS and the EAA, which calls into question the management structure of this organization. This is in addition to the earlier $2 million cash advance from the state to fix technological problems.

The EAA has been sold to legislators as able to draw a significant amount of its funding from private resources. The system has raised just a fraction of its needed operating costs and the EAA Chancellor, John Covington, has stated that it needs more than the typical per-pupil allotment from the state our other traditional public schools receive.

Federal Investigation:

Investigators from the Office of the Inspector General from your own department have recently visited Michigan to look into suspected financial improprieties within the EAA, including the use of federal funds to provide a no-bid contract valued at roughly $300,000 to a firm affiliated with a former member of the EAA board. This individual was a member of the board when the contract was approved.

Safety, Security and Disciplinary Concerns:

School guards in the EAA, contracted through a private firm, are paid barely above the minimum wage and lack training in even the most basic duties, such as CPR and first aid. The ineffective security measures at the EAA are reflected in reports last month of its stunning disciplinary statistics, where, in just five months of existence, the EAA had compiled more than 5,000 infractions against students at a rate that has only increased with time.

Failed Leadership:

Every successful organization must be helmed by a successful leader. Unfortunately, in the case of the EAA, that is simply not true. Weeks after EAA Chancellor John Covington left his post as superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools, the state of Missouri revoked that district’s state accreditation. Covington left the Kansas City schools amid turmoil and without the support of the school board or parents in the district.

Likewise, the Social Justice League, a group of students from Mumford High School, an EAA school, have made their concerns public, only to be rebuffed by EAA administration. A couple months ago, they wrote to their principal and DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts – who is Chancellor Covington’s boss – to share their concerns about “math illiteracy, large classroom size, inadequate number of counselors, safety in the schools and failure of the administration to protect special needs students.”

In a newspaper guest column, Chancellor Covington dismissed them as a “small group” whose concerns were alleviated by meeting with the principal on several occasions and receiving his advice of forming a student council in order to involve students who do not share their views. This tin-eared response illustrates how out of touch EAA leadership is – this is not an issue of whether the cafeteria should serve pizza or hot dogs on any given day. When a group of students feels aggrieved with respect to the education they are receiving, and the treatment of their fellow students by staff and administrators, it is a serious issue, not one to be swept under the rug as Chancellor Covington advocates.

Alternatives Exist:

As I mentioned, I was heavily involved in passing real education reform measures several years ago. The legislation we implemented would be able to identify and turn around failing schools without creating an entirely new bureaucracy that is easily susceptible to the kinds of issues outlined above. Additionally, our reforms included benchmarks and accountability – something Republicans in the Legislature have failed to give to the EAA, despite advocacy and the offering of amendments by other legislators.

When Republicans took over both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s office in January of 2011, they quickly did away with our reforms in favor of an unfettered, corporate-driven education scheme that focuses less on educational outcomes and more on profits. The bipartisan plan we crafted would have worked had it not been dismantled in favor of right-wing ideological policies.

Conclusion:

Secretary Duncan: First of all, thank you for your time and deliberate consideration of the contents of this letter. I write with the simple goal of bringing these grievous concerns to your attention.

You do not have to take my word for it, though. Others who have visited the EAA schools, sans the dog-and-pony show the Governor and his administration trot out each time they invite legislators and other officials on a tour, will confirm these reports. My friend and colleague, Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton has done her own research and will agree. Wayne State University associate professor of curriculum studies Thomas Pedroni has analyzed the testing schemes at depth, and will concur regarding their flaws. I am confident the students of the Social Justice League would be happy to speak with you directly.

As FOIA requests continue to pile up, as evidence of ineffectiveness, malfeasance and ineptness builds and as legal challenges begin to take form, it is my hope that you and President Barack Obama will seriously consider the ramifications of giving the appearance of tacitly supporting this failed experiment.

Sincerely,

Bert Johnson, State Senator
2nd District
State of Michigan

Discuss

Fifty-five years ago yesterday, President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce public school integration and protect the black students known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

In the weeks preceding the federal government’s involvement, the Arkansas governor had deployed his state’s National Guard to support the segregationists who gathered at Central High School to physically prevent the black students from entering. The large crowd of segregationists threatened the students both verbally and physically. One student recalled her experience on the day of September 4th, 1957 as follows:
 

“They moved closer and closer… Somebody started yelling… I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd – someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”

After being allowed access to the school with the assistance of the U.S. Army, the threats, ridicule, and deplorable treatment did not end. However, because of these brave students and the decisive action of the federal government, a historic milestone was achieved.

A favorite argument today by right-wing activists against anything President Barack Obama or the federal government endeavors to do is about “states’ rights.” States’ rights are outlined in the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791, which says that powers not explicitly granted to the federal government by the Constitution and not prohibited to the states by the Constitution, are in fact reserved for the states.

The argument over the balance of power between the states that make up our nation and that of our federal government is not unworthy of debate. However, the selective adherence to the principles of states’ rights by most Republicans undercuts any credibility the Constitution may lend them. Of course, states’ rights were the dominant position for slaveholders before and during the Civil War. It was also the rallying cry for bigoted individuals who opposed efforts to desegregate our public institutions, hence the need for President Eisenhower to send the U.S. Army to Little Rock.

Today, conservatives – and particularly Tea Partiers – have a renewed commitment to this brand of strict federalism. Their conflicting positions and misunderstanding of the Constitution as a living document that was designed to change with the times undercuts their proclaimed adherence to constitutional principles.

On the most compelling topics of the day, positions maintained by Republicans are at best a mish-mash of federalist talking points and big-government mandates. For example, in their view, successful healthcare models – like Obamacare – should be relegated to the states, but the federal government should ban certain citizens from the rights and benefits associated with marriage based on who they love. They say Medicaid should be run by the states, but a woman’s reproductive choices should be dictated to her from the men who inhabit the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

States’ rights adherents have been known to oppose the federal income tax, Social Security, immigration reform, and even the direct election of United States Senators by the people. These are not only activists on the fringes. In fact, one-time Republican presidential front-runner and Texas Governor, Rick Perry, holds many of these views.

As we recognize the 55th anniversary of United States federal intervention into the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, it is important to remember that despite the many achievements in equality our nation has seen since its inception, we are still called upon to work toward a more perfect union. It is my hope that myopic views of the U.S. Constitution will be replaced by thoughtful analysis and consideration of modern challenges when the issue of states’ rights is discussed. Our country and We The People deserve that much.

Discuss

For centuries, those who aspired to power or held power have employed the political, military and economic strategy of “divide and conquer.” This consists of breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that alone have less power than the individual using the strategy, while preventing smaller groups of power from aligning.

Nobody can accuse Republicans of reinventing the wheel. This method of gaining and maintaining power is not new, but its effectiveness is proven. Today, it is being used to take hardworking men and women, whose interests lie in one another’s success, and turn them against each other. This is illustrated most strikingly in the war being waged across the country against teachers. As a result, we have blue-collar workers, as well as parents who don’t have the resources to send their children to parochial schools, cheering the ongoing attacks on our institutions of public education and the teachers who are expected to impart knowledge and wisdom to our sons and daughters.

Teachers have taken their lumps over the past decade. They have seen reduced salaries and increased health costs while state aid to public education has been raided time and again by greedy Republican politicians in Lansing. As a result, teachers dip into their own pockets to provide such necessities as pencils and toilet paper. Additionally, class sizes have expanded and the general environment in school buildings has not been conducive to learning.

Not every teacher is great; the same goes in every profession. However, fully blaming them for everything – low test scores, bad student behavior, budget deficits, students performing beneath grade-level standards – is wrong. First, it is a cop-out at a time when parental involvement is needed more than ever and, increasingly, schools are merely used as daycare services instead of institutions of knowledge. Second, this is exactly the type of reaction from people that the wealthy, corporate elite hopes for and encourages.

The conditions have been particularly ripe for this type of discontent among those who should be buttressing one another’s efforts. In economic conditions where many people are unemployed, underemployed, or lack job stability, it is easier to lash out at someone perceived as not struggling quite so hard at that moment. Each division amongst people like us, however, is just another fault line exploited by the elites.  

The narrative being pushed today, evidenced by such things as the comments section of news articles published about teachers to Republican politicians’ talking points, is that teachers are lazy, spoiled and are to blame for everything that ails our public education system. We are told that their “way of life” – Cadillac benefit plans, exorbitant salaries and months of time off – are unsustainable. Despite the fact that these things do not exist, it begs the question: Why are positive contributors to society, like teachers, and regular Michigan citizens, like the poor, the elderly and college students, never a priority? Why are their needs never sustainable, but a nearly $2 billion shift in the tax burden away from large corporations and onto the backs of hardworking Michiganders is?

The answer lies in the overall strategy put forth by the elites. If working men and women are busy being angry at the teacher who lives down the street, the union member who they see at the grocery store or the public employee who services them at state agencies, then they do not have time to focus on the real reasons for our economic misery: Wall Street banks and Republican politicians.

Our children are falling behind our global rivals in receiving a quality education; our taxes keep going up; the cost of living continues to rise; and families are losing their homes. Meanwhile, investors are making record profits; banks refuse to lend to consumers; and the wealthiest individuals continue to receive tax cuts. Some would have us believe we should blame each other. I hope we will instead work together, force the government to represent our interests instead of those of their corporate backers, and send a message that the people of this state and nation still value a strong middle class, good paying jobs and an equitable society that all citizens can participate in.

Senator Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) is serving his first term in the Michigan Senate. He represents the 2nd District, which includes northeast Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck, Harper Woods and all five Grosse Pointe Communities. Stay in touch with him at www.Facebook.com/SenBertJohnson or www.Twitter.com/SenBertJohnson.

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