Stop the Madness!

Under No Circumstances Should Detroit Teachers Be Allowed to Strike

With Detroit Public Schools spending more than $14,000 per student, one would expect there would be some learning going on, even after adjusting for the inefficiencies one usually finds in a government operation and further accounting for the particularly high levels of corruption and incompetence associated with government in Detroit. Yet recent math scores for Detroit students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are only slightly better than what one would expect for children who had received no instruction in math at all and were guessing at all the questions. The district is begging for volunteers to tutor Detroit school kids in reading — which doesn’t bode well for the reading results when they come out.

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Meanwhile, Detroit’s teachers appear primed to reject a new contract with the district. While Detroit Federation of Teachers officials are willing to make concessions, the teachers themselves are angry enough that a wildcat strike is not out of the question. At some point, the people of Michigan need to put an end to this nonsense.

Early this month, DFT officials agreed to terms on a tentative contract with DPS. The terms were harsh to say the least: Detroit teachers would effectively loan the district $250 every two weeks, which the district would then use to pay down $219 million in debts. The new contract will include a new evaluation procedure and incentives for teachers to improve their performance, but teachers will keep seniority rights and automatic pay increases, which undermines the academic accountability that is every bit as important to the future of DPS as debt relief.

The reaction among teachers has been overwhelmingly negative so far. Video of a union meeting at Cobo Hall shows teachers vehemently — even hysterically — opposed to the new contract. One teacher went so far as to call the deal “educational genocide,” whatever that means.

The Detroit News has documented an effort within DFT to remove DFT President Keith Johnson and wage an illegal strike. It is difficult to gauge the attitudes of Detroit teachers — the audience at Cobo wasn’t necessarily representative of the whole — but given the size and hostility of the crowd, one has to figure that the odds of a strike are at least as good as those of the contract being ratified.

If there is a strike, one may as well throw all the law books out the window; this will be a battle of raw political power. The law against strikes is clumsy and difficult to enforce; the district will need to be ready for individual hearings for every striking teacher in order to enforce fines. DFT may not have the clout of its rival, the MEA teachers union, but it should get support from other unions in the AFL-CIO, of which it is a member. The temptation for state or local politicians to resolve the crisis by turning cash over to Detroit Public Schools may be irresistible unless the public loudly registers its own disapproval.

Before Detroit Public Schools can return to some degree of effectiveness — let alone excellence — the sheer craziness of its labor relations strife must be resolved one way or another, and that means that DFT, or at least the radicals in DFT who are pushing for a strike, must be confronted and made to pay a steep price for their incompetence and recklessness. Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb has warned teachers that they are likely to get a 10 percent pay cut if they go on strike. If there is a strike we can only hope he is able to make good on his word, and that the repercussions don’t end there.