Detroit 'walk-ins' call attention to dire school conditions

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Transparency and accountability—that's what members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers were demanding in a series of school "walk-ins" Feb. 9. The educators and other school employees gathered with parents, students and community leaders at schools across the city so neighborhoods could see firsthand the buildings' dilapidated floors, falling ceilings, mold, antiquated heating and cooling systems, and other hazardous and deplorable conditions.

Randi Weingarten with Detroit studentsAfter the walk-ins, the DFT activists, joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten, capped the day of action with a citywide Light Up the City for Public Education rally. The DFT planned the day's events to increase pressure on state and local authorities to correct unsafe, unhealthy and longstanding hazards in school buildings and bring all Detroit public schools up to 21st-century standards. The mobilization also increased pressure on Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature to institute long-needed reforms—returning Detroit Public Schools to local control, ending the failed emergency manager law, and paying off ballooning school debt created under state control.

"The ball is now in the governor's court," Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, told reporters. "What is he going to do to make the district fiscally sound? If we don't get funded properly, we're going to be right back where we are now."

"Enough is enough. We, as educators, have given all we can give. We know our students deserve better schools and our educators deserve better pay," said Tanisha Clay-Oloyeda, a teacher at Drew Transition Center. "All of our students matter—they need better books, better classrooms and better conditions. Now is the time for Detroit to get its money and schools back from Lansing."

Detroit students at walk-in"There is a willful indifference toward the children of Flint and Detroit," AFT President Randi Weingarten told one walk-in crowd, a reference not only to problems in Detroit schools under Emergency Manager Darnell Earley but also to hazardous, well-publicized water supply problems in Flint that developed when Earley served as Flint's emergency manager. Recently, Earley announced he will resign as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools at the end of the month.

The Feb. 9 day of action received heavy media coverage, including a segment on "PBS NewsHour." The efforts to invite communities into schools stood in sharp contrast to recent actions by Detroit Public Schools, which earlier this month refused to allow nationally recognized industrial hygienists to conduct health inspections at schools where teachers and parents reported dangerous conditions.

The conflict has also landed in the state Capitol, where some legislators are pushing bills that would punish teachers and staff for speaking out against conditions that are hazardous to students. "It's disingenuous of [lawmakers] to not want teachers to speak out for children," Bailey said.

Last month, the AFT and its local and state affiliates joined parents in a lawsuit charging that fiscal and building conditions in DPS have left Detroit students, teachers and parents exposed to dangerous environments that will cause serious and irreparable harm to their health, safety and welfare, and to students' educational opportunities.

[Staff reports]