Politics & Policy

Unions of Urban Decay

Newt. vs. Detroit.

Detroit – On Fox News Sunday last week, Newt Gingrich singled out Detroit as an example of deep national problems needing bold solutions. “The Detroit Public School system currently graduates 22 percent of its entering freshman. If you’re an African-American male, you have 73-percent unemployment in your 20s if you drop out of school,” lectured Gingrich, joining a long list of outside political and business leaders who speak passionately about what is happening to children here — and in other urban areas like it.

”I do think a president has an obligation to say to the country: ‘You can’t compete with China and India if your education system is failing,’ and that has to be solved locally,” continued the undeclared presidential candidate, rallying a nation to Detroit’s bedside.

Trouble is, the locals don’t care. And no amount of bold national solutions will matter until they do.

Ignoring the staggering statistics Gingrich cited, Detroit leaders instantly manned the ramparts to shoot the messenger. Detroit Federation of Teachers President Virginia Cantrell said Gingrich should “leave Detroit alone.”

Detroit School Board President Jimmy Womack disputed Gingrich’s numbers, hauling out a discredited Michigan Department of Education graduation figure of 67.2 percent as proof. In truth, the public system is so broken that Detroit has no idea how many students graduate from its high schools. An independent Manhattan Institute study puts Detroit’s grad rate at 42 percent — not quite the 22 percent figure Gingrich cites from a 2006 Education Week report, but still well below the national average of 70 percent.

Piling farce on tragedy, Councilwoman Monica Conyers (wife of Detroit Congressman John Conyers who has devoted his time in office — not to teaching Detroit children — but to impeaching George W. Bush), invited “Gingrich to come here. Detroit is on the upswing” — a ridiculous claim given that the city (as Gingrich noted) has lost half its population since 1950.

As a direct consequence of its education and family collapse (a 70-percent child-illegitimacy rate), Detroit today sports a 47-percent adult illiteracy rate, a significant barrier to attracting new business.

Gingrich rightly says that “we should basically, fundamentally replace the Detroit school system with a series of experiments to see if they’ll work.” But he is hardly the first person to suggest such a thing.

Consider former Republican Governor John Engler who made Detroit school reform a priority, including a 1998 city school-board takeover and passage of legislation approving charter schools. At every turn, these reforms were met by intense resistance from entrenched unions and their Democratic puppets. Education consultant Tom Watkins, a former superintendent of Michigan schools, is a rare Democrat willing to counter the party line. He calls the refusal to address Detroit’s problems “state-sponsored stupidity at best, and institutional racism at worst.”

Consider Michigan millionaire and philanthropist Robert Thompson, who in 2003 offered the city $200 million — $200 million! — to build 15 Detroit charter high schools. He was run out of town. Mayor Kwame Kilptrick, who sends his own kids to charter schools, advertised Detroit’s poisonous racial politics when he rapped the white businessman for trying “to ride in on a white horse” and save the city.

Or consider Dave Bing, a prominent black Detroit entrepreneur. The former Detroit Pistons star was heaped with scorn for partnering with Thompson. At a 2005 banquet hosted by the Call ‘Em Out Coalition, Bing was awarded a “Sambo Sell-Out Award” by Councilwoman Sharon McPhail.

Even the great Bill Cosby is shunted aside.

When Detroit hosted the NAACP national convention July 7-12, nary a word was spoken about grad rates or shattered families. Cosby, who has made a second career of highlighting dysfunctional black families — including high-profile trips to Detroit — was not even invited. He had to organize his own meeting with 800 black men a week later.

“Let’s be clear,” said Gingrich, “This is entirely about the unions.”

True, and as Detroit’s middle class drains away, city politicians are ever more dependent on unions for power. An estimated 30 percent of Detroit’s population is in government employ — including education. Last year, when Detroit teachers illegally (by state law) walked out on the first week of classes to protest a new labor contract, no one lifted a finger to stop them. Not a Democratic judge. Not the Democratic mayor. Not the Democratic governor.

Many of the reforms Gingrich talks about in Detroit are being quietly seeded in experiments like private Cornerstone schools or the University Prep charter. But the deeper, systemic problems of family collapse and union loyalty are likely to take generations to overcome. 

 – Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.

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