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Is this a recovery?

Hidden unemployment, crisis in education funding

Published Dec 23, 2009 3:57 PM

A Dec. 16 Detroit News article confirms what most working people in Detroit have been saying for some time: The official employment figures issued by the federal government do not give an accurate description of the depth of the economic crisis in the city. According to the article, the actual unemployment rate in Detroit is closer to 50 percent, rather than the nearly 28 percent reported over the last several months.

Detroit has been seriously affected by the economic crisis because of the large number of people who were employed in the automotive and steel industries. General Motors Corporation, which was one of the largest employers in the Detroit metropolitan area, has trimmed hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last two decades. The other two auto firms, Chrysler and Ford, have also eliminated tens of thousands of jobs in the last few years.

The massive elimination of jobs in these industries has had a tremendous impact on other sectors of the economy, including retail, health care, entertainment, culture, housing, education and public service. This ripple effect is clearly demonstrated in Detroit and the entire state of Michigan, where job cuts have been carried out on a broad level.

According to University of Michigan Professor George Fulton, who analyzes employment data for the state of Michigan, a broader definition of joblessness is needed to get a more objective view of the state’s economic situation. In the official calculations of employment data, those who are working part-time, those who have become discouraged and are no longer actively seeking jobs, and people returning to school because of the economic situation are not factored into the overall rate of unemployment.

The article reports: “The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that for the year that ended in September, Michigan’s official unemployment rate was 12.6 percent. Using the broadest definition of unemployment, the state unemployment rate was 20.9 percent, or 66 percent higher than the official rate. Since Detroit’s official rate for October was 27 percent, that broader rate pushes the city’s rate to as high as 44.8 percent.”

Impact on education

Detroit has witnessed a reduction in enrollment of approximately 100,000 students over the last decade. Many of these youth left the city when their families moved to pursue employment. With the loss of students, it is inevitable that schools will be closed down and teachers, clerical workers, custodians, social workers and counselors will lose their jobs.

Another major contributing factor to the decline in enrollment in the public school system is the “charterization” of public education in Detroit and the surrounding communities. Over the last decade the notion that charter and private schools are inherently superior to public institutions has been advanced through the corporate media, private corporations and segments of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Although there is no empirical scientific evidence proving that charter schools provide better curricula and get better results than their public counterparts — in fact, some studies suggest just the opposite — the movement toward privatization of education is well underway. Even the Obama administration is firmly on record in support of charter schools and merit pay for teachers.

Both the expansion of charter schools and the policy of merit pay undermine unions, which are often characterized by the corporate media as bad for student achievement. The onus for good or bad academic performance in the public schools is often blamed on teachers and parents. Yet the drastic cutbacks in public education funding by the states is very rarely taken into consideration by the corporate media when they address the problems of school performance.

A new initiative of the Obama administration is “Race to the Top,” a national education policy which encourages the charterization of public schools. In Michigan, the legislative body in the capital of Lansing passed a major education reform bill that was a prerequisite to receiving $400 million in federal funding under the Obama administration.

Highlights of the recent legislation, which was rushed through to meet an end-of-2009 deadline, include the expansion of what is called “high-quality charter schools.” The state is given the green light to take over up to 5 percent of schools that are labeled as performing poorly. In addition, the new so-called reform legislation allows some professionals to gain teaching certification without training in education, and it allows school districts to give merit pay to teachers using federally mandated school performance standards. (Detroit Free Press, Dec. 20)

Unions representing school educators have opposed this new legislation, saying that it undermines their collective bargaining rights and capacity to win decent contracts for teachers. “This strips employees of their voice in helping students in these struggling schools,” said Doug Pratt, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association. “It is completely inappropriate.” (DFP, Dec. 20)

As this federal money was being offered, education funding in Michigan was slashed by $350 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year. These cuts not only impact Detroit — with its more than 80 percent African-American population — but also the suburban communities, which are being forced to lay off teachers, cut pay, close schools and eliminate academic and sports programs to address the loss of funding.

School districts outside Detroit, including Dearborn, Highland Park, Livonia, Bloomfield Township, Southfield and Lathrup Village, have been forced to make recommendations that will close buildings, lay off educators and eliminate transportation for students. Thousands of parents have rallied at school board meetings in these communities to demand that cuts be halted. However, school administrators and board members say they have no choice in light of the drastic reductions in state funding.

The Oakland Press reports, “The Southfield Public Schools 2009 Citizens Task Force on Declining Enrollment recommended a financial action plan to the school board this month that calls for closing schools.” (Dec. 20)

Lathrup Village Mayor Frank Brock, along with Southfield Councilman Myron Frasier, co-chaired the task force and recommended that the district close Eisenhower Elementary, Leonhard Elementary, Thompson Middle School and Southfield-Lathrup High School. Students from these schools would be transferred to other buildings in the district.

Fight back program needed for jobs, quality education

Large protests against the cutbacks in school funding throughout the state have been organized on a district-by-district basis. What is needed is a broader program of struggle that can build coalitions across district lines and link the reductions in school funding to the overall economic crisis facing the U.S.

Recent meetings of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs have discussed strategies to address the crisis. Last month, the coalition urged people to pressure Gov. Jennifer Granholm to impose a blanket moratorium on utility shutoffs for the winter. DTE Energy routinely terminates services for more than 150,000 households every year.

Upcoming actions include the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally and march in Detroit on Jan. 18. One of the major themes of the 2010 MLK Day celebrations will be the need for a real jobs program throughout the country.

The coalition will take another delegation to Lansing for the governor’s “State of the State” address in late January. The coalition is still pushing for a declaration of economic emergency in Michigan. The state has an official unemployment rate of 15 percent. But using the broader definition of joblessness, actual figures have climbed above 20 percent.

The coalition also wants to address the draconian cuts in school funding by working to build the March 4 national mobilization against the crisis in education.