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Teachers defy anti-labor guv

By Kevin Carey and Jerry Goldberg


Carey is a member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers

The Detroit Federation of Teachers and the "reform school" board appointed by Gov. John Engler announced a tentative contract Sept. 6 following a militant one-week strike. Two days later the union members voted to extend the current contract and return to work pending the outcome of a ratification vote by mail.

While details of the agreement are forthcoming, it appears the teachers beat back the School Board's attempts to replace across-the-board pay raises with a "merit pay" scheme tied to performance of individual schools on standardized tests. David Adamany, the head of the "reform board," said that "merit pay" still could be imposed without union approval.

The temporary agreement includes a 2 percent pay hike for each year of the contract, but the pay scale still falls below that paid teachers in Detroit's suburbs.

The tentative agreement does not achieve the rank and file's central demand to lower class sizes in Detroit's overcrowded schools by hiring new teachers. Instead, a pilot plan will lower class sizes in only 21 of the 271 Detroit public schools.

This was the first teacher's strike in Michigan since a state law imposed draconian penalties on teachers for striking, including potential fines of one day's pay for each day on strike.

Under Michigan's apartheid-like system of public education, school districts in urban, mostly African American, and rural districts receive about half the funding per student as do districts in the rich, white suburbs. For example, despite its 47-percent child-poverty rate, the Detroit schools receive only $6,235.60 per student per year under the state formula. In contrast, the school district for Bloomfield Hills, home to the Big 3 auto company executives, receives $11,106.25 per student.

Engler and the state legislature have done all they could to divert attention from this obvious inequality in school funding. First they launched a racist attack on the elected Detroit school board in this African American city, blaming the board for the crisis in Detroit's schools.

Then the mostly white legislature voted to abolish the African American Detroit school board and replaced it with a "reform" board headed by white former Wayne State University president David Adamany, well-known for his union-busting attempts at the university.

Now Adamany and the so-called "reform" board are trying to place the blame for the inadequate public education for Detroit's youth on the very workers who have been teaching valiantly for years despite the glaring lack of resources in the schools.

Adamany is also trying to impose a new attendance policy on the teachers. He has even called for a "dress code" for teachers. The list of take-backs goes on and on.

This approach infuriated Detroit schoolteachers. Many of these teachers have to spend their own salaries for books and supplies for the students because the inadequately funded Detroit schools simply lack the resources to supply these fundamentals. It's not a question of needing more incentives to teach well. It's a question of being supplied with the basic necessities to do the job.

A key demand of the Detroit teachers was that the district hire 1,000 more teachers in order to cut class sizes that now range from 35 to 40 students per class to a manageable level. The teachers also demand wage parity with their suburban counterparts, so that the Detroit public schools can retain teachers and provide quality education.

One demand that Adamany, Engler's flunky, has advanced is to close any schools that fail to meet minimum test standards. This demand seems connected to Engler's desire to go to a voucher system to subsidize private and religious schools and dismantle public education.

On Sept. 3, the Detroit schoolteachers surrounded the school board building with a demonstration of close to 10,000 teachers and supporters. Thousands of striking Detroit schoolteachers led off this year's Labor Day parade, which overall was the largest and most spirited parade in years.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the strike, it represents a giant step toward building the kind of movement needed to overturn Michigan's apartheid-like system of public education, and win the right to quality education for all Michigan's youth.

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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