U.S. Department of Education officials, including Peter Cunningham (center) listen to comments from parents, teachers and others during special Council session Aug. 30, 2012. Prof. Thomas Pedroni is second from left, Elder Helen Moore at far right. Councilwoman JoAnn Watson chaired the meeting.



COMMENTARY TO PETER CUNNINGHAM, U.S. DEPT. OF EDUCATION, at special City Council meeting Aug. 30, 2012

(VOD: full story coming shortly.)

By Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni

August 30, 2012

Mr. Cunningham,

What will be your legacy?

Elder Helen Moore speaks at council session Aug. 30, 2012.

Elder Helen Moore’s legacy will be that she carried the children of Detroit her entire life. I don’t know if you can see that when you look at Elder Moore, but I can. When I look at her, I see the thousands and thousands of Detroit children she has shouldered for generations now—going on 50 years. Their warmth, their humanity, their dreams. She shoulders it all. Many of those children are in caskets, because in Detroit, it’s no longer a strange thing for a child to die. The unimaginable is everyday in Detroit. . . .

The question that confronts us all, that we all need to ask of ourselves, is whose burden are we carrying? You, Peter, have the ear of Arne Duncan and so many other powerful people who impact our children. You’re carrying a burden too. We can all see that. But we want to know, whose burden are you carrying?

Peter Cunningham (above, in White Sox cap) has long taken “progressive” stands on public issues. On October 27, 2007, for example, Cunningham and his wife (holding “Cut Off the Money” sign were part of a major anti-war march in Chicago that ended at the Chicago federal plaza. The plaza was the site of Barack Obama’s famous anti-war speech three years earlier (the speech that Obama’s campaign used to cut off Hillary Clinton from many anti-war voters during the Democratic Party primaries). Above, Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham stood with Sharon Schmidt, Josh Schmidt (holding “Stop the War” sign) and Sam Schmidt (holding the “No War” sign he had made himself) during the speeches at the October 27, 2007 march in Chicago against the Iraq War. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.

Sometimes we don’t really know whose burden we’re carrying. We all need to ask ourselves from time to time. We’ve all seen the photographs of you holding up those “NO to WAR” signs in Chicago. You are obviously a man who respects life and who has put himself out in public to share views that aren’t always popular and sometimes even get you called some names. That takes courage.

What will be your legacy? Who will they say you carried? It’s not always easy to tell whose burden we are carrying.

That’s where the voices of the people come in, because they can help us know whom we are carrying a burden for. And those who watch and pay attention, those who study these issues, in Detroit, in Chicago, in New York, and so on—we can help let you know whose burden you’re carrying also. Then you can decide if you’re carrying the right burden or not.

I’ve done some research. That’s what I do. I’m a researcher. An educational researcher. I’ve been a researcher and an educator and a teacher for more than 20 years. And I’ve done all that in big cities for all those years, and in Detroit for the last seven years. Here’s some of what I’ve learned from countless interviews, meetings, from archival research, from analysis of media, from documentary evidence.

Now Elder Moore, I’m about to call some people out. Do I have your permission to do that?

As I just said, I’ve only lived here for seven years. I don’t have the time in this place like my elders, like you, but I’m catching up fast. Do I have your permission to join you in calling out those who need to be called out?

Amber Arellano

On December 13, 2009, Amber Arellano, a journalist with the Detroit News, one of our two local dailies, sent an excited email to Bill Hanson at the Skillman Foundation. It said, in part, “The Excellent Schools Detroit coverage is coming…First piece on Monday lays out what coalition is trying to do. Frames the debate as supporters of the status quo v those who want more accountability, work together, willing to change.”

This is important, and actually foreshadowed much of what was soon to come. Here was a journalist, expressing her excitement that the “coalition”, of which the Skillman Foundation was and still is a key part, was about to be presented by the newspaper glowingly, as the solution. More significantly, anyone who disagreed with or raised questions about “what the coalition is trying to do”was going to be framed in the coverage as the status quo, as defending what is not defensible, as the problem.

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation

It’s nice of the Detroit News to make it so clear to their readers. And in case the paper’s readers still might not get it, Ms. Arellano told Bill at the Skillman Foundation, the Detroit News had published “a bylined oped from Tonya and Sharlonda [that] appeared in Friday’s News.”

For those who don’t know Tonya and Sharlonda by first name, as Ms. Arellano did, that would be Tonya Allen, currently on the board of Skillman, Michigan Future Incorporated, and founder of the Detroit Parent Network, and Sharlonda Buckman, executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, board member of Excellent Schools Detroit, board member of Michigan Future Incorporated, and board member of the new statewide EAA or Educational Achievement Authority.

Sharlonda Buckman, Exec. Director of Detroit Parents Network, which was recently disbanded by the elected Detroit Board of Education.

With the multiple pieces in the Detroit News, Amber Arellano, the journalist, had done her job well. She delivered. And she was soon rewarded by becoming the executive director of Education Trust Midwest, the think tank funded by the Skillman Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Ford, Metlife, and the United Way Venture Fund. She is perhaps the state’s most often quoted educational expert, even though her background is in journalism and not educational research, and even though she is paid to give her expert commentary about educational reforms by the same people who are paying for the educational reforms upon which she comments.

It’s a neat little circle, a closed little circuit of a world that removes all the difficulties and the ambiguities of actual life.

Louis Glazer speaking at Mackinac Policy Conference.

These same organizations, the ones I’ve mentioned so far, pop up over and over again when you study what has happened over the past few years to the Detroit Public Schools, and schools in Detroit generally, as I have, as many of us have. You can take one name and trace it through the circuit.

Here is an example. Louis Glazer is the founder and director of Michigan Future Schools, which supplies seed money to charters. Louis Glazer sits on the board of Excellent Schools Detroit, along with Sharlonda Buckman, Carol Goss, Roy Roberts, and Shirley Stancato. Those four are also on the board of our new Educational Achievement Authority. (Actually Sharlonda Buckman may have just resigned.)

EAA Chancellor John Covington, with New Detroit CEO Shirley Stancato in background.

The EAA is presided over by John Covington, trained by the Broad Foundation, which funds the EAA and also funded and trained the former leader of the Detroit Public Schools, the EAA’s competitor. Roy Roberts was appointed by State Superintendent Michael Flanagan to be the Emergency Manager of DPS, and Flanagan is with Louis Glazer on the board of Michigan Future Inc. and serves at the pleasure of the State Board of Education on which sits Dan Varner who also sits on the board of Michigan Future Inc. and is the new CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit. It’s dizzying.

Daniel Varner with “Think Detroit” partner Michael Tenbusch, both advocates of radical privatization of education. Photo from Manhattan Policy Institute website.

These are some of the central players in the “coalition” as Ms. Arellano called it. And the coalition had achieved some of its most important goals, or at least the one that was named in the title of the plan that it rolled out in March 2010—Taking Ownership. The coalition owns the educational terrain. Its member organizations and key personalities are now no longer on the outside looking in. They are in leadership positions of all the major organizations that control the educational debate

And the plan they rolled out in 2010 as they took ownership was a radical one, in quite a few ways. It was radical in the way it called for the abolition of the elected Detroit School Board and for mayoral control, particularly since, as I discovered in my research, mayoral control had been a resounding failure wherever it had been tried, including previously in Detroit.

And it was radical in that the coalition was proposing reforms which had so convincingly been shown in the research literature to have failed in so many cities and so many countries around the world so many times over the past few decades—reforms centered on setting up an educational marketplace of choices and turning parents into educational consumers. Now that’s courage—to propose as a new thing and as an innovation the very thing that we knew convincingly by 2010 was an utter failure. It’s courage. And it’s also the very definition of insanity. Which might be okay if they were just trying this out on their kids. But they’re not. They’re trying it out on the kids of Detroit. Here they were in 2010 proposing it for our kids.

Perhaps proposed is not the right word, because you propose ideas to someone who can then accept or reject them, in whole or in part. They didn’t propose, they asserted. And then they imposed.

In my research, I found that back in 2009, before the coalition rolled out what they would be trying on our kids, Louis Glazer wrote to his acolytes,

“We need to care far more about parents being good shoppers than being “good” voters.”

Glazer believed, and apparently still believes, that if you set standards and close schools that don’t meet those standards, and let parents choose schools that meet the standards, then everything will just sort of work itself out. That’s magical thinking. And it was an interesting philosophical debate when it was only bandied about in far right think tanks by people like Milton Friedman in the 1950s… I’ve studied that too.

But now our kids in Detroit are the guinea pigs of Milton Friedman’s modern day apostles. And guinea pigs is really not the right term, because it implies that something new is being tried. That it’s an experimental solution that holds some promise. But what is being tried in Detroit is not something new. We know from looking at a huge mountain of literature that it has been tried over and over again, in the United States and elsewhere, and it has been clearly shown to have failed, to have made things worse, it has pushed kids out, it has destroyed art and music and critical thinking and creativity, it has turned schools into lifeless testing centers, it has fed the prison pipeline… that’s what happens when you read the research literature. You read that what some people are telling you is new is not new at all. Not only is it not new, but it’s failed again and again.

But to point that out is defending the status quo, as the Detroit News told us. Those of us who did ethnographic research in schools, interviews, observations, analysis, and concluded that teachers were actually working hard under some very difficult circumstances in the Detroit Public Schools—we were said to be defending the indefensible.

Those of us who said that because students scored well in the suburbs, but not so well in the city schools—that that had something to do with the living conditions in our center cities—we were called excuse makers, when we used to be called researchers. In other words, those of us who bared witness through our research and our investigations to the horrible suffering that childhood poverty in America’s cities inflicted on children, those of us who saw our economy decimated by those who became rich off of it, those of us, like Elder Moore and others assembled in this room, if we don’t want the same old same old that they’re offering, because we know it doesn’t work, and it actually hurts our kids and destroys are schools—we’re defending the status quo, we’re the problem.

Mr. Cunningham I have news for the coalition that is destroying our schools—and the news is this—you, Excellent Schools Detroit, Michigan Future Schools, EAA, you are the status quo. You defend what has been shown to not work; you defend what fails our kids. You see, the cities in America are talking to each other now. It may be Excellent Schools Detroit here but it’s the Academy for Urban School Leadership in Chicago. We’re talking to each other through our coalition. We are talking to each other in other cities, aren’t we Elder Moore, and we know what the blueprint is, the failed blueprint, and we’re telling you we don’t want your failed blueprint. If you haven’t done your homework, we have, and we are not going to let you do to our schools what you did to them in Chicago and Philadelphia and New Orleans and elsewhere. We’ve been studying up and using our 21st century skills and we’ve been facebooking and twittering and email blasting and skyping and we know what you all did over there, in Kansas City, in Chicago, in Philadelphia, and you’re not doing it here.

We want real education reform. We will bring the real education reform. The community will bring the real education reform. It will bring the education reform that sends the test companies packing, the educational management organizations packing, the emergency managers packing. We are throwing them out, Helen am I right? And in their place we are making our schools places of joy, places of community. We are using the best of our research—real research, not phony baloney think tank research—to face some real challenges in Detroit, and we need our youth to be smart, creative, communicative—the way they were born—not dull and passive before a computer screen doing time in school before they do time somewhere else. Some people look at Detroit and all they see is devastation. But what they’re seeing is what the auto industry left behind, its carcass sick and rotting. But that’s not all we have here. Certainly not. We have people who are brilliant and creative and loving, and we’re not going to let you kill that off in your testing centers with the control room at the front where they get frisked on the way in.

Mr. Cunningham, whose burden are you carrying? Whose burden will you carry? Don’t tell us about change and how hard change is if you’re bringing that same status quo blueprint of setting standards and closing schools and telling our parents they’re education customers who are free to choose whatever dreary testing center they can drive their kids too.

Help us help Elder Moore to carry the burden. She’s tired but I know she’s going to be here another hundred years or more if she doesn’t get some help soon. Mr. Cunningham, build your legacy as the one who didn’t stand by while your bosses brought a failed blueprint to one urban community after another. Say no to war. Say no to the war that’s being waged against our communities and our schools. Stop being part of the status quo, and join us in carrying the burden of real innovation and educational justice for our youth and our communities.

Click on Pedroni, Discourse for detailed analysis by Prof. Pedroni on “Urban shrinkage as a performance of whiteness: neoliberal urban restructuring, education, and racial containment in the post-industrial, global niche city.”

Some related articles by Diane Bukowski and Russ Bellant:

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