Tension Mounting between Community and State Leadership in Response to DPS Protests

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 29, 2016

Intended to provoke

The Detroit Public Schools (DPS) teachers who organized the sick-out protests this month intended to spur a conversation about the deplorable conditions of school buildings, state control of the district, and low teacher salaries. Teachers at 66 out of Detroit’s roughly 100 schools organized absences that shut down schools for several days this month. Perhaps bolstered by the widespread coverage of the Flint water crisis, the people of Michigan now have the attention of the national news media.

Photo courtesy of Lars Schleicher

Photo courtesy of Lars Schleicher

Faced with this national attention, district and state leaders have been forced to respond. DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley (formerly the Emergency Manager of the City of Flint) said in early January that it’s clear that teachers are feeling frustrated over the challenges they face, but he stressed at the time that teacher sick-outs are not the way to get the support needed to address the issues and called the sick days “misguided.” Public trust in Earley is tenuous at best, however. While he maintains that he was appointed Flint’s city manager after the decision to switch water sources was already made, his reputation has suffered in light of the recent attention on the crisis in Flint. With the public demanding a reaction to the issues that protesters have brought to light, state and district officials have taken steps to communicate its proposed solutions.

Response from State Leadership

The state’s official response to the sick-out protest was an attempt to toughen strike laws. On Thursday, majority Republicans in Michigan’s Legislature introduced legislation to make it easier to classify work stoppages as illegal strikes. Additionally, it would shorten the current 60-day period for the state Employment Relations Commission to conduct a hearing on complaints to two days, and allow hearings to be held for more than one teacher at a time, enabling the state superintendent to revoke their teaching certificates and impose larger fines.

While individual teachers simultaneously using sick days is considered legal, Earley maintains that these are organized efforts and therefore illegal. The school district has therefore filed a court complaint against the union, as well as a few individual teachers and activist groups with the intention of obtaining a restraining order that would put a stop to the protests. The judge assigned to the case, however, has decided against ordering an end to the sick-outs and set a hearing on the matter for February 6.

Community Response

The teachers and the public that supports them are becoming increasingly impatient with district officials’ handling of the situation. At a DPS hearing on Monday, Earley attempted to make speech addressing the matter and was interrupted by an audience member shouting, “Get out of Detroit, Earley, nobody wants you here!” Several other crowd members interjected similar comments through the duration of the hearing. A critical mass of community members has demonstrated support of the teachers, raising the stakes for public officials.

On social media, one DPS student, Imani Harris, started a conversation from her own perspective, using the hashtag, #dpsstudentfightsback. Communicating her support for the many inspiring teachers she has had in DPS, she addressed lawmakers directly:

Legislators, the Emergency Manager and others have said that teachers are hindering our education by doing these sickouts, but the reality is that none of you live in Detroit, and none of you have children who go to a DPS school. None of you have to come to school every day and share books (if we even have books), or be in the middle of doing work and the lights cut off. . . None of you experience what we experience, and until you have, you have no right to speak on anything happening in our district.

Other students have joined the effort, and a few are planning a protest in solidarity with teachers. The protest is intended to further push district leadership to step up in favor of teachers and their demands for safer school conditions.

Keianna McCormick, a DPS junior agrees: “We are saying that we don’t like the conditions in our school. Our teachers are saying they don’t like the conditions in our school. If everybody is saying the conditions are terrible, why are they just ignoring this?” The district and state’s actions in the coming months will demonstrate whether these efforts have been taken seriously, and with the general public paying closer attention to goings-on Michigan overall, they might be wise in doing so.

Contact Kacy: kmartin@msu.edu

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.