Mark Binelli, Your Picture Of Michigan Schools Lacks Color

The New York Times Magazine will focus on education this Sunday. While this edition is sure to offer an opportunity for families to know what is going on in education across the country, it will paint a picture of Michigan as the poster child for failing for-profit charter schools.

In some cases this is accurate. But the article does not use a colorful enough palette and leaves you with a one-sided view of education in some of our hardest-hit communities and how we got here. As a product of Michigan schools, let me give you some nuance.

The author believes that us “edreform wonks” don’t know what we talk about. You tell me? When you read in the Times that Michigan has the worst charter schools, what do you think of? Do you hear a tale of a state that just decided to start failing children? Do you see the name “Betsy DeVos” and think she and her partners were the only reason that students switched from traditional public schools to charter?

Well, as much as I would love to jump on the band wagon of “All Charter Schools Fail our Kids,” I can’t because I know this is wrong.

The reality is that if traditional public schools had continued doing their job educating kids in low-income communities, there would have been no doors open for those highest bidders who make charter schools look bad.

Let’s talk Highland Park, a city within a city that thrived for years due to the auto industry, and the district where I grew up. Our schools ranked highly in academics. Resources were never scarce and you didn’t have to leave the city for anything.

Sears Roebuck, SS Kresge’s, A&P markets, and our schools were safe havens.

There were three elementary schools, four junior high schools, one alternative school, and Highland Park High in my district. We also had vocational schools that prepared you for actual careers, like auto mechanics, culinary arts, and cosmetology. Highland Park Community College and the adult education programs were top-notch. You may ask, where did it go wrong since we seemed to be the mecca for great education?

Here is what happened: Racism and Greed.

Highland Park Schools were once awesome. They offered community education.

Our principals knew our families. Parents were the crossing guards. Teachers were former HP alumni and it was a city of unity.

But in 1983, when I was an 8th grader at Ford Middle School, I started hearing rumors of theft at the school’s administration level. There were families that held positions within the city for decades and they passed those titles down to each generation. These families worked in every department from the Mayor’s office down. Corruption was all over HP’s leadership. That did not start with Robert Davis, as the article insinuates. Rumors of  leaders purchasing personal items with funds they had taken from the city began in the early 80’s

Brenda Perryman of Talk2Me and former a former teacher at Highland Park Community High School who loved her job and her students and remembers how devastating it was when students’ ACT scores were questioned.

“ I had two African-American young males who got a perfect score on the ACT. When the state saw the scores they assumed the young men had cheated. After all two black boys from Highland Park could never be this smart, right?”

The state of Michigan made the two boy retake the test and Mrs. Perryman was so disappointed in those who chose to not believe that students of color could be smart enough.

“Our schools began to lose funding. The Chrysler plant closed and the city was losing money.”

The Chrysler plant closing came after a steady downward spiral of businesses closing after the Ford plant left. Big corporations like Sears Roebuck, A&P, Woolworth, and local factories found themselves following suit and families lost jobs.

The state of Michigan brought in emergency managers with the same family ties to former leaders who had already depleted city funds.

There was no plan to help a city in such fiscal distress. No solutions given to now over-crowded classrooms and consequences of school closures. Instead of the State adding funds to public education they corralled kids into one school and told families there were no other options.

Teachers began to leave, pay was low, and learning conditions declined. This is why for-profit charter schools were allowed to come in and swindle and hustle kids out of a good education. We were failed by four entities: the state, traditional school leaders, for-profit charter school leaders and community leaders who padded their families pockets.

The city school system was greedy and corrupt before charter schools came in. The charters just continued the trend of a systemic racial agenda to not educate brown and black kids. Highland Park and Michigan are both examples of what not to do to improve public education. This is what the Times article gets right. But if you paint the picture you must do so by telling the whole story. This article failed to do that.



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