BOSTON – The U.S. Secretary of Education blasted the Michigan Legislature on Monday for inaction regarding Detroit Public Schools’ financial troubles, expressing frustration with Lansing in an ongoing crisis that critics say could negatively affect Detroit children.
The remarks from the U.S. education chief add a new level of criticism regarding the pace of negotiations in Lansing to bring stability to the state’s largest school district, which has been under state control for most of the 2000s.
In an on-the-record Q-and-A at the Education Writers Association conference in Boston, which Bridge Magazine attended, John B. King Jr. said he was uncertain whether the Legislature would to take action to resolve the financial crisis by June 30, after which DPS officials say the district will not be able to pay many teachers and staff.
“The lack of concern for people is disturbing,” King said, in reference to the legislature.
King said he had spoken recently with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others in Michigan about the situation, and he believed the legislature wasn’t moving quickly enough.
King's criticism didn't sit well with Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“The secretary’s comments are irresponsible," Pscholka told Bridge late Monday. "Here we are poised to spend between 500 and 700 million dollars. The bills we have in committee coming up tomorrow (Tuesday) not only will pay off the debt, but we’re also setting aside money to make sure teachers get paid back for loans (they) paid to the district.
“That’s why today’s sick outs, the timing was terrible," he said, referring to teacher walkouts Monday that closed classes nearly across the district. "Especially when you’re trying to rebuild enrollment. I don’t know how you rebuild trust when you don’t show up for work.”
Gov. Rick Snyder has urged the Republican-dominated legislature to swiftly approve more than $700 million in aid to the debt-ridden district. Detroit schools are currently operated under $48.7 million in state emergency aid, which was only intended to last through the current school year.
Even if a resolution is reached, King said in Boston, “I’m afraid (it) will be of a temporary nature, and not permanent.” He called Detroit’s financial struggles part of a long-term pattern of disinvestment in urban school districts.
King’s comments come amid increasing public pressure on the Legislature to pass a more permanent funding package for the troubled school district beyond June 30. On Monday, a citywide teacher sick-out and protests forced the cancellation of classes at more than 90 DPS schools.
As protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the state’s largest school district, Judge Steven Rhodes, the state-appointed emergency manager for DPS, said at a press conference inside that state lawmakers should act swiftly to approve the longer-term aid package. Approval, he said, would bring stability to Detroit schools and their teachers, some of whom wouldn’t be paid, even for work they’d already performed, under the current allocation of funds.
"We will not be able to operate after June 30," Rhodes said, according to the Detroit News. "Everyone who has a stake in this should urge the legislators to act promptly."
It’s not at all certain the sick out by Detroit teachers or a rebuke from President Obama’s education chief will produce the intended results. Indeed, the teacher actions on Monday were greeted with regret by the governor and outright scorn by Republican legislative leaders.
House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, called the planned sick out illegal, counterproductive and self-interested.
“The Detroit Federation of Teachers is once again putting the wants of adults ahead of the needs of children, specifically the 40,000 Detroit schoolchildren who were left out in the rain this morning,” Cotter said in a statement.
“Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves.”
Pscholka dismissed any suggestion that lawmakers would not take care of longer-term funding for Detroit's schools. “This is our constitutional duty to take care of this issue and we will do it," he said.
Of King, Pscholka said, "It sounds to me like this was kind of an off-the-cuff remark. I think it’s off target and another case of, ‘Let’s use kids as human shields, politically.’ And I’ve really had enough of that.”