Detroit Teachers Put Special Interest Politics Ahead of Students

A teachers’ union strike is threatening to delay the start of the school year in Detroit’s public schools. It’s just the latest lesson about how special interest politics disserves kids.

Instead of returning to the classroom last week, Detroit teachers took to the picket line after voting to reject the school district’s latest contract offer. The union wants annual pay raises of 5 percent. The district’s package includes 5.5 percent pay cuts and reductions in benefits because of budgetary constraints. A court order forced the two sides into negotiations to see if they could reach a deal before today, when about 130,000 students are due back to school.

The Detroit school district faces a $105 million budget shortfall this year, which is why officials proposed the pay cut for teachers. In recent years, the school system has hemorrhaged, with as many as 10,000 students leaving each year to attend charter schools, private schools, and suburban school districts, according to the Detroit News.

There is a good reason students are leaving in droves: Just 22 percent of Detroit public school students graduate. That’s the lowest graduation rate among the nation’s 50 largest school districts, according to a recent report published by the Council of the Great City Schools. The system with the second-worst graduation rate is Baltimore City, where 39 percent of students graduated — a pitiful performance but nearly twice Detroit’s rate. About 26,000 Detroit students are currently enrolled in chronically failing public schools, as defined under No Child Left Behind.

There’s lots of blame to share for the low-performance in Detroit schools.  Poor management and a top-heavy administrative bureaucracy have worsened the District’s financial woes. Poverty and crime are also to blame. Many of the city’s schoolteachers deserve great respect for facing many challenges — including the threat of violence — to teach in the city’s public schools.

But as a whole, the public school establishment has been failing Detroit’s students and families for years by placing the interests of the “system” ahead of the interest of children. There’s no better evidence of this than the experience of philanthropist Robert Thompson.

In 2003, Thompson pledged to donate $200 million to support the creation of 15 new charter schools in Detroit. The schools would have focused on preparing at least 90 percent of their students to graduate and go to college. In a school district facing serious financial and academic challenges, a $200 million donation for new schools should have been welcomed with celebration.

But not in Detroit. Thompson’s generous offer was met with hostility from the public school establishment and its political allies. The Detroit Federation of Teachers protested the measure by walking out for a day, forcing schools to shut down. Politicians, including Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, failed to embrace the proposal, citing concerns about the city’s control. State lawmakers were unable to reach an amicable compromise. The political controversy led Thompson to withdraw his charitable offer.

“I am disappointed and saddened by the anger and hostility that has greeted our proposal,” explained Thompson to the Associated Press. “Because of these contentious conditions, we are not going to move forward with our planned charter high schools. Our proposal to build a number of new very small charter high schools in Detroit was intended to increase options for Detroit parents and children. The proposal was meant to be for kids and not against anyone or any institution.”

In the years since that political controversy, Michigan lawmakers came to their senses, reconsidering Thompson’s offer and allowing him to partner with the Skillman Foundation, a nonprofit, to open small charter high schools one at a time. But how better off would Detroit children be today if Thompson’s original offer hadn’t been rejected out-of-hand by Detroit’s education establishment?

The lesson of the Thompson donation controversy, as well as the current teachers’ union strike, is clear: The public education establishment has different interests than children and families. While the Detroit public schools systematically fail their students, the greatest concerns of the teachers union and the public school bureaucracy are to protect their own interests and prevent any competition, without regard for what would benefit students.

As Detroit parents prepare to send their children back to school next Tuesday — to be babysat by administrators while their teachers strike outside the classroom — they should think long and hard about the first lesson the teachers’ union is teaching this year: In Detroit, special interest politics comes before the interests of children. Detroit families deserve better.