May has been a tumultuous month for educators and students in Detroit. It started with a “sick-out” on Monday, May 2, when teachers walked out of 94 of the city’s 97 public schools in protest of budget cuts and a state takeover they say has put their school system hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and threatened to leave them without pay. The week ended with potential but controversial relief: Republican state legislatorspassed a bill that would give $500 million to Detroit’s broke school district.
“This package of bills resolves the financial problems faced by DPS [Detroit Public Schools] without affecting funding for school districts across the state and allows for every tool available to improve the DPS students’ education,” said Republican Representative Daniela Garcia, vice chair of the state’s House Committee on Education, in a statement. “For decades, students in Detroit have not received an adequate education, and the result is the worst academic achievement in the nation. This bill package ensures that schools that are consistently the lowest achieving are shut down and will no longer fail Detroit students. There are no more excuses.”
Garcia, along with representatives from DPS, did not respond to requests for comment.
But, according to union leaders, that $500 million falls short of what the school system needs for a financially stable future, and it comes with huge caveats, at least in the views of the teachers who are protesting. The bill, sponsored by House Republicans, but opposed by virtually every Democratic legislator in Michigan, would limit the ability of teachers to organize and punish teachers who choose to go on strike in the future. The state Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans, would have to pass the bill too, but it’s unclear whether that will happen because state Senators have shown favorfor a different rescue bill that is more union, less charter-school friendly. The bill would also create a new district that would oversee all of Detroit’s schools. Teachers from the old district would keep their jobs but with new, non-unionized contracts, their pay would be tied to performance as opposed to seniority, and schools would be overseen by a new commission that would decide which to keep open and which to close based on test performance and graduation rates.
“It’s hard for me to believe we’re making progress when I didn’t get paid for two days this week because the state didn’t have enough money,” Emma Howland-Bolton, a fifth grade teacher who has taught at two Detroit public schools in the past six years, told VICE. “Progress would be having our schools funded.”