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Lansing treating Detroit teachers like the enemy

Feb 18, 2016

 Suppose you came from fairly humble circumstances and had struggled to earn a college degree. You decide to become a teacher yourself, because that’s the only way poor and disadvantaged children have any chance at achieving a successful life.

You wind up teaching in a building that is falling apart, that is infested with mold and rodents, where the heat doesn’t work well in the winter, and it is like an oven in the late summer. You have to worry about fights, some involving kids bigger than you are. Guns and gangs are very real problems.

You have students way behind where they should be, who are hungry and dirty and sick, and who do not have a home that supports learning.

If you can endure all this, you may someday make an annual salary that is, on average, about $53,000 dollars a year, considerably less than in more comfortable suburban districts.

Who would do a job like that? Fortunately for the struggling children of Detroit’s public schools, a few hundred dedicated teachers hang in there. This year, in addition to all the other handicaps, they are working for a district that is so broke, it may soon be unable to pay them, unless the legislature comes up with the money to fix the district.

The good news is that it is beginning to seem more likely this will happen. Packages of bills are moving through the state house and senate that would reconstitute the district into an old entity, which would pay off the debt, and a new one that would educate students. The two packages are very different, but that’s why we have conference committees.

Yet what disturbs me most about all this is the Republican lawmakers barely disguised contempt for teachers, and visceral hatred for their unions. One can understand the dislike of the unions. In the past, teachers’ unions have made massive contributions to causes usually seen as liberal -- and candidates who were almost always Democrats.

But the teachers themselves deserve better. Right from the start, Republican lawmakers have seemed far keener on punishing teachers than helping the schools.

The package of bills in the house would tie pay to performance and student growth, which sounds reasonable until you ask: By what standard?

They would also put severe restrictions on collective bargaining, and outlaw “sickouts” like the ones that finally focused attention on how bad the schools are.

Additionally, they would allow districts to hire non-certified teachers, which may occasionally make sense – but which sounds like one more attempt at union busting.

I presume students still learn that in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed compulsory school segregation and the doctrine of separate but equal. But the fact is that the Detroit public schools are just about as rigidly segregated as any Southern district before Brown vs. Board.

They are separate and also unequal, thanks in part to the irresponsible proliferation of charter schools, which have drained them of money and resources.

The result is what we see now. The legislature is now crafting a fix which may give DPS a new lease on life. But attacking the very people who are responsible for what learning and success there has been is unfair -- and a recipe for long-term disaster.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.