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Detroit Schools Hit With Class Size Explosion


Detroit students are back to school on Monday, but their teachers are still waiting to hear if they have jobs. Those who make it back to the classroom will face dramatically larger class sizes.

Under Detroit teachers’ new contract, unilaterally imposed by an “emergency manager” in July, class sizes will skyrocket.

Kindergarteners through third-graders will now share space with 40 classmates, up from a limit of 25 students. For fourth- and fifth-graders, class size was raised from 30 to 46 kids, and middle and high school teachers may face up to 61 students this fall, jammed into existing classrooms built for 35.

“There’s no way we can educate that many students. Our rooms are not conducive to it. We’re talking fire hazards,” said elementary teacher Ivy Bailey at a July rally.

In a repeat of last year’s district-wide layoffs, every one of the city’s 4,100 teachers was forced to re-apply for his or her job over the summer. Eight hundred will not be called back, as Detroit closes 15 more schools and transfers another 15 to a state-run district for underperforming schools.

Already 40 percent of Detroit’s students attend charter schools, a number that’s steadily growing.

To make matters worse, half of Detroit’s public schools teachers were still waiting this week to hear if they’d have a job. The Detroit Federation of Teachers is advising teachers hold tight until the district issues official job offers.

Though the layoffs are déjà vu, this time rehiring will be based on performance evaluations instead of seniority. DFT unsuccessfully filed a grievance over management’s failure to collaborate with the union on the evaluation process and has threatened to sue.

Evaluations were based on surprise 20-minute observations conducted by retired principals who had no prior relationship with the teachers they were observing.

Bigger Isn’t Better

Studies have linked larger class sizes to everything from lower test scores to a shorter life expectancy. Students in smaller classes get better grades, show improved attendance, are less likely to repeat grades, and perform better on college entrance exams. Larger classes have the opposite effect.

A Wisconsin study found that performance declined for each additional student more than 15 in an elementary class.

In Detroit, teachers will also move from having one period per day available for planning lessons, grading, and meeting with parents, to just two per week.

“If I have 41 first-graders, how am I to do my job effectively?” asked Bailey. “It’s a teachers’ contract, yes, but it’s also the children’s contract.”

The new contract also increases health care costs and extends last year’s 10 percent pay cut.

Though Detroit’s public school district is still nearly $100 million in the hole, it’s a far cry from the $327 million deficit last year. The deficit shrank mostly because of a $200 million bond issue and a $45 million one-time federal grant.

Michigan’s emergency manager law, passed last year over heated objections from unions, allows the governor to appoint overseers for cities or school districts operating in the red. These managers have the power to amend or cancel union contracts, sell off local assets, and remove elected local officials.

Roy Roberts, a former General Motors official with no education experience, took on his role as Detroit schools emergency manager with relish. Officials met three times with Roberts the week before he imposed the contract, pleading unsuccessfully for negotiations.

In late July, DFT President Keith Johnson brought in American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who was in Detroit for the union’s national convention. As 500 teachers rallied outside the district office, Johnson and Weingarten asked for negotiations, a timeline for bargaining, and an impasse procedure. The answer was still no.

AFT Steps In

In mid-July, AFT Michigan, DFT’s state parent organization, hatched a plan to mobilize the union’s dormant membership.

AFT dispatched eight organizers to connect with Detroit’s public school teachers in their own neighborhoods. Through door-to-door outreach, AFT hopes to build regional organizing committees that will partner with local community groups to challenge cuts to the city’s schools.

“The push for this came from the leadership having no power to negotiate,” says AFT organizer Greg Pratt. He sees the new organizing project as following in the footsteps of the community-based organizing of the Chicago Teachers Union. CTU leaders led members in fights against school closures alongside community groups, saving several schools and gaining enough traction to force Mayor Rahm Emanuel to hire additional teachers to implement a longer school day for students.

Whether AFT Michigan can make as much progress remains to be seen. For now, most organizing has consisted of one-on-one conversations with members to ferret out top issues and reconnect them to the union. Committee meetings have begun in some regions, but campaigns have yet to be determined.

Some groups have canvassed their neighborhoods to promote upcoming ballot initiatives to protect collective bargaining rights and end the state’s emergency manager law.

Nina Chacker, an elementary special education teacher, wonders if the organizing push is too little too late, saying the union lacks a clear plan of action for members to get behind. “Door-knocking without anything to offer people is not effective,” she said.

Failure to Fight

Chacker, like many DFT members, is critical of union leaders who’ve consistently failed to mobilize members against concessions. “We took a big hit” with the new contract, she says, “but even in the past when the union could bargain and there wasn’t an emergency manager, we’ve taken a lot of losses.”

The imposed contract comes after years of givebacks both accepted by the union and forced on it.

In 2009 talks, the union gave up an unprecedented $200 million over three years. Last year, after the emergency manager law was passed, Roberts imposed a 10 percent salary cut and higher health care costs on all school employees.

William Weir, a steward and middle school teacher of 15 years, recalls that members’ ideas for direct action in 2009 went ignored by DFT leaders. “We talked about a lot of different things—demonstrations, maybe a sickout, maybe everybody would leave at 2 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. some day,” he says, rattling off ideas that never came to fruition.

Instead, Johnson insisted on closed-door negotiations with the emergency manager. Even union executive board members were kept in the dark until a concessions agreement was reached.

This time around, Johnson’s threat of a strike after the contract imposition went largely ignored by district officials and union members alike. After years of inaction, Weir says the union has become little more than a paper tiger.

He wanted to see the union mobilize not just on contract issues but around the quality of student education. He remembers his shock at how behind his students were in basic reading and writing when he started teaching 15 years ago.

“If we had done more intervention then, things might not have been so bad,” he said.

State of Emergency

Now the giant question mark in DFT’s future is the fate of the law that put Roberts in power.

The law was suspended August 8 after opponents gathered 226,000 signatures to put it to a statewide referendum in November. It will remain on ice until then—but Roberts retains many of his powers under an earlier law.

If voters repeal the 2011 law, Detroit teachers could return to the bargaining table. “If it’s repealed, then nothing done under it would be valid,” said Detroit attorney Julie Hurwitz, who’s working on a suit challenging the law’s constitutionality.

A win is by no means guaranteed. Polls show a majority of Michiganders in favor of keeping the law, which has been used to take over four cities and three school districts from Flint to Benton Harbor, all but one of them majority African American.

The union has only recently thrown itself behind efforts to repeal the law. Weir says that despite past inaction, the union’s best hope is to go all in on the emergency manager fight, canvassing and building public opposition to the measure.

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