Tuesday, December 07, 2010

In the Best Interests of a Detroit Child

In the best interests of the child is a term most often raised when it comes to family court and child custody. It is a term that helps to describe how child advocates, both those within the legal system and those on the outside, attempt to arrive at legal judgments that most benefit the children.

It is also a system that on its face is too often turned on its head with advocates and judges routinely making decisions based on arbitrary factors such as sex of the parent, money, and which parent is most easily pacified. Best interest of the child?

While at least legal lip service is given to the term in family, probate and circuit courts, no such whispers of "in the best interests of the child" are being entertained in the recent victory of the Detroit school board over its emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb.

But, this must all be put in context. Robert Bobb is, after all, an emergency financial manager. He did not come to serve in the Detroit School District in a time of peace, for the district's academic and financial track records had been dismal for years.

Need examples?

Detroit's school children ranked dead last in national standardized tests that pitted its students against those enrolled in other large publicly run school districts. Detroit's school district ranked dead last in graduation rates in the entire country coming in at only 25 percent, and many of those students that did manage to graduate from Detroit's crumbling educational system needed remedial education courses upon enrollment in college. To top all of that off, the district itself had churned up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt despite the fact that it had for years enjoyed special funding status among all of Michigan's school districts due to its sheer size. To put it frankly, the school board, administration, contractors and teachers of Detroit's public school system had fiddled with their children's educations while Rome burned--for many, many years.

Along came Robert Bobb. Appointed to the position of emergency financial manager by Governor Jennifer Granholm (a move that came way too late as far as I'm concerned,) Bobb hit the ground running and didn't bother to groom the egos of those who he determined were partially responsible for the district's demise.

He wrestled with school board members, he took on ineffective administrators, he attacked graft within the system, he shut down ongoing financial fraud schemes, he ended contracts, shut down schools, and he butted heads with the well entrenched Detroit unions. While every one of these head butts provided financial benefits to the district itself, few of the head knockings produced any friends among the wolves who had been protecting the hen house all along.

Bobb entered the Detroit scene with his eye firmly focused on finances, but it didn't take an airport scanner to see through the layers of academic deception that was the DPS. The test scores made it visible. The graduation rates made it visible. Feedback from recruiters at the college level made it visible. Bobb determined (as any sane person would) that the academic structure of the DPS was every bit of the failure that its financial structure was.

Bobb then began taking academic control from the people who had failed so miserably. He installed sweeping academic reforms for the district over the objections of those who had a track record of failure. He already had the enemies, but now he was making them even angrier.

Bobb's enemies sought the only recourse that they had--the courts. The courts in this instance had no reason to even consider what was in the best interests of the children. All the courts had to do was determine whether Bobb acted legally or not by stepping beyond his role of emergency financial manager.

The children? Never mind them.

Judge Wendy Baxter's ruling chastised Bobb for marginalizing the board's role, which she said exceeded his power. She noted, for instance, that Bobb would be within his rights to close a school for financial shortfalls, but not for academic performance.

In April, Baxter granted the school board an injunction to halt Bobb's authority over academic decisions. That order was overturned on appeal.

In Monday's ruling, she granted the board a permanent injunction, pointedly calling Bobb's academic plan "uninformed by the lack of education expertise."
Hmmm. Does she mean that Bobb's academic plan needs the educational expertise of those same outstanding educators that had helped lift the children of Detroit to the lofty academic perches of both the lowest test scores and the highest dropout rates in the entire nation?

The school board won while Bobb and the children lost. Now, whose best interests were served here?

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