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Commentary: When the law is an ass

- Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio's Political Analyst

This is the season when Charles Dickens is again in style, or at least his Christmas Carol. We’ve all been grappling with our own versions of Mr. Scrooge all year, and we all need a happy ending.

But I’ve been thinking of a different Dickens character this week: Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, who said in response to some idiotic legal ruling: “If the law supposes that, then the law is an ass.”

What made me think of that was the Wayne County Circuit Court ruling Monday. Judge Wendy Baxter ruled that Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Schools, had no right or power to make academic decisions.

She ruled that those decisions can only be made by the elected school board, and that Bobb had no business creating an academic plan and putting it into place.

Legally, there may be a basis for her decision, but she also seemed to personally attack Bobb. She virtually sneered that his vision comes “from a person chosen solely based on his finance credentials and who has no … education or counseling background,” except from “unvetted sources.”

That seems to ignore the fact that Bobb was the elected president of the board of education in Washington, D.C schools, and that many of the Detroit school board members aren’t former teachers either, including current board president Anthony Adams.
More importantly, under them, the district compiled a stunning record of both financial mismanagement and academic failure. Students were fleeing in droves, test scores and graduation rates were abysmal, and the system was running huge deficits.

Robert Bobb, a nationally respected turnaround expert, was then brought in by the governor as the schools’ emergency financial manager. He maintains that you can’t separate financial from academic decisions in a context like Detroit’s, and he’s clearly right.

More than ten years ago, Detroit’s schools were in a similar state and former Wayne State University President David Adamany was put in charge of them, in a similar role to that Bobb has today.

What had happened then, Adamany told me, was that the schools had been largely ruined by an elected board which picked superintendents for political reasons and demanded that the schools appoint cronies to jobs for which many were unqualified.

Much the same thing happened under the current board. Mr. Adams, by the way, wasn’t the Detroit board’s original president.

That was a man who was exposed as being functionally illiterate, and then who had to resign after he admitted he masturbated in front of the superintendent of schools.

Robert Bobb, whose term expires this year, has stabilized the schools’ finances, won approval of a half-billion dollar bond issue, and has put some sound academic reforms in place.

Democracy is a wonderful thing. But we the people don’t attempt to elect the board that certifies brain surgeons.

Making sure children get the education they so desperately need is as important as brain surgery. Detroit Public School kids have been the victim of political football for far too long. This decision should be speedily reversed, and Bobb’s academic reforms need to be given a chance to work. For if we don’t restore public schools that parents can have confidence in, Detroit hasn’t got a chance.

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