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Rep. Lower has proposed legislation in Michigan that would punish schools not cooperating with ICE

October 17, 2019

Last month, State Representative Jim Lower introduced legislation in Lansing that would prohibit schools and school districts in Michigan from passing a resolution or adopting policy that would prevent an employee from, “communicating or cooperating with appropriate federal officials concerning the immigration status in this state.”

Rep. Lower introduced HB 4988 on September 17 of this year, just weeks after the Detroit Public Schools adopted a Sanctuary policy, affectively stating that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials were not allowed to enter school property. 

Lower’s proposed legislation is clearly a reaction to the Sanctuary policy that was adopted by the Detroit Public Schools, plus it sends a message to other school districts across the state, since the proposed legislation would levy civil fines (between $2,500 – $7,500) against any school district that did not cooperate with ICE agents or other Department of Homeland Security officials.

Lower, a Republican, who represents the 70th House District, is only in his second term of office for that district and has already made a name for himself as part of the Central Michigan Leadership PAC. Rep. Lower is a staunch supporter of the NRA, Michigan Right to Life and has received a 100% voting record with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Lower has provided a substantial amount of money to his own election campaigns, along with other major campaign funders, such as: 

  • Michigan Realtors Association PAC $9,500
  • DeVos Family $9,000
  • DTE Energy PAC $8,500
  • Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association $8,000
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan $5,000
  • CMS Energy $5,000

In addition to voting for conservative legislation, such as the reactionary HB 4988, Lower announced earlier this year that he is running for the 3rd Congressional District, currently held by Justin Amash. According to Lower’s 3rd Congressional candidacy website, he is running to Stand with President Trump.  Check out this video from Lower, which clearly demonstrates his allegiance to far right policies.

HB 4988 is currently in the Education Committee, which is chaired by Pamela Hornberger (R),  with no clear timeline when it might be voted on in the House.

In the meantime, there are other communities looking to adopt Sanctuary School policies in the state. In fact, GR Rapid Response to ICE, working with Movimiento Cosecha GR, is providing a Sanctuary School Toolkit to Parents, Students and Stakeholders in Local School Districts. If you would like to obtain a copy of the Toolkit, contact GR Rapid Response to ICE on their Facebook page

Why do we continue to ignore the role of Structural Racism and Neo-Liberal Capitalism when talking about the black community in Grand Rapids?

October 16, 2019

Within the last few days there have been a few news articles that people have been sharing on social media, articles that specifically have to do with economic issues facing the black community in Michigan and in Grand Rapids.

The first article appeared in the online news source Michigan Advance, with the headline, Michigan gets called out for having the most Black children living in concentrated poverty

The Michigan Advance piece is based upon data in a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, looking at child poverty in the US.  According to the report, Michigan has the highest rate of African American children living in poverty than anywhere else in the country.

The second article appeared on MLive yesterday, with a headline that read, Grand Rapids ward with highest black population gets least investment from city

The MLive article focuses on the City’s 3rd ward and how there has been a lack of investment in that area, both from government and the private sector. The MLive article relies exclusively on former or current city officials, which means that those most impacted by the economic disparity are excluded from having any input.

Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear is referenced quite a bit in this article and talks a great deal about the need for equity in the third ward. Having more equity in the third ward would be a good thing, but there is no real conversation about how to create equity, besides advocating for more public and private investment. In fact, what is glaringly absent from both articles is a critique of structural racism and neo-liberal capitalism.

The omission of both structural racism/white supremacy and neo-liberal capitalism should not surprise us, considering most mainstream news sources do not explore these themes. In both of these news articles it is more focuses on how resilient black people are or, in the case of the MLive story, how the third ward can get the private sector to invest in the area. Ironically, calling for more private investment will likely exasperate the problem, since private investment is just one form of neo-liberal capitalism.

In fact, there has been recent private sector interest in the third ward, specifically from AmplifyGR and Start Garden. Of course, both of these entities are DeVos family creations, with AmplifyGR seeking to dictate economic policy in the Boston Square area (by spending millions on buying up property), and Start Garden attempting to convince black people that if they have a great business idea, Start Garden will give them start up money. However, both attempts have serious flaws.

The AmplifyGR model follows the White Savior model of outside investment, but only on the terms that benefit those doing the saving. The Start Garden model might benefit a few select members of the black community, but it ignores the larger, structural problems caused by white supremacy and capitalism. I mean, what does it say about the economic system of capitalism, when people in Grand Rapids have to pitch business ideas within a contest format, with money supplied by the wealthiest family in the area, and then that same family gets to keep some of the profits made by the few black business ideas that are successful.

There are some real alternatives and solutions. Look at what the Movement for Black Lives has been advocating over the past few years. Their platform is very comprehensive and includes the following: An End to the War on Black People, Reparations, Divest-Invest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power

Implementing this kind of platform would not only confront structural racism and neo-liberal capitalism, it would eliminate the need for the AmplifyGR and Start Gardens of the world.

Declaring Indigenous People’s Day in Michigan is a good start, but it’s not enough

October 14, 2019

(Editor’s note: I am writing as someone who is a beneficiary of Settler Colonialism and addressing what the State of Michigan did with regards to their declaration. I do not want to downplay how this declaration is viewed by indigenous people, as their views on this matter are theirs.)

Recently it was announced that Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, declared October 14, 2019 as Indigenous People’s Day.

Many non-indigenous people have already declared this to be a great victory of Michigan and a demonstration of equity and inclusion. It is a good start………but a whole lot more needs to happen. In fact, even some of the language within the declaration is problematic, so lets take a look at some of that language.

The second paragraph of the declaration states:

WHEREAS, in 1990, representatives from 120 Indigenous Nations at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance unanimously passed a resolution to transform Columbus Day into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about pre-existing indigenous cultures that have survived an often violent colonization process and continue to exist and thrive in present day America; and,

This part of the declaration is not so much problematic, but it does omit something. The European invasion of Turtle Island would more honestly be named as Settler Colonialism. According to Native scholar and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of the book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, there is a major difference between colonialism and settler colonialism.

Settler colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.

In the fourth and sixth paragraphs of the declaration, it acknowledges the Native Nations that are in the area now currently occupied by the State of Michigan.

WHEREAS, the state of Michigan recognizes the presence of the three major groups in our state today, the Chippewa (Ojibwe), Ottawa (Odawa), and Potawatomi (Bodéwadmik), who have lived upon this land since time immemorial, and values the progress our society has accomplished through Native American thought and culture; and,

WHEREAS, the resolution states that Indigenous Peoples Day shall be used to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples on this land, and to celebrate the thriving cultures and values that the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and other indigenous peoples contribute to society; and,

Acknowledging the indigenous nations that exist in what is called Michigan is important, but there is no reference in the declaration that names them as nations. The US government entered into treaties with each of the three Native Nations that now exist within Michigan, since governments can only enter into treaties with other sovereign nations. The Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi are not just cultures and people’s, they are sovereign people, a critical point that we can never forget.

In the seventh paragraph of the declaration it says that we should celebrate indigenous contributions:

WHEREAS, on this second Monday of October, we should honor the historic, cultural, and contemporary significance of Indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands that also became known as the Americas and celebrate their contributions to communities throughout Michigan, the United States, and all over the world;

Ok, sure, we can acknowledge contributions, but framing it this way omits all of the harm. Any declaration that comes from settler colonial powers needs to acknowledge the harm committed by White Settlers. Failure to acknowledge genocidal policies not only erases the brutality, it is designed to make those of us who benefit from Settler Colonialism fell better about ourselves. If we were honest, we would acknowledge the theft of land, the displacement of whole native communities, the forced removal of children who were put into boarding schools, the ongoing impact that mining and the oil pipelines has had on Native communities, plus the fact that indigenous people, in what is now called Michigan, are some of the poorest people in the state.

For the State of Michigan to declare Indigenous People’s Day is a good start, but it is not enough. We have to own this history of Settler Colonialism and we have to work towards dismantling it. Those of us who are the beneficiaries of Settler Colonialism have to listen to what it is that the Native Nations that live on the land currently occupied by the State of Michigan, we have to listen to what it is that they want. One major thing would be to shut down Line 5 in Michigan, something that the Governor said she would do. All the declarations in the world don’t mean anything unless their is direct action that primarily benefits and improves the lives of indigenous people.

Opening up a whole new pool of potential employees: Criminal Justice Reform and the West Michigan Policy Forum

October 13, 2019

Last Monday, the Econ Club of Grand Rapids hosted a panel discussion on the topic of criminal justice reform in Michigan.

The panel was moderated by the VP of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Andy  Johnston, who was quoted in an MLive article stating: 

It will help make us safer, it will spend our taxpayer dollars better, and it opens up a whole new pool of potential employees. We need to increase our workforce participation rate in West Michigan, and one of the ways we can do that is being one of the best communities out there when it comes to getting returning citizens connected with employment.”

Not surprising that someone with the Chamber of Commerce would make criminal justice reform about jobs, or as Johnston stated, “it opens up a whole new pool of potential employees.”

Those on the panel were echoing much of the same sentiment. The panel of three consisted of a CEO, the director of a non-profit criminal justice reform group and a strategist from the neo-liberal think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

JT Weis is the CEO of Arbor Industries, a company based in Holland that hires former felons. Weis says his faith dictates that he hire former felons. Indeed, for Weis, his faith is pretty central to who he is. The CEO of Arbor Industries is the School Board President of Sacred Heart Academy in Grand Rapids, a westside Catholic school that has gone through a significant change in recent years, under the leadership of Rev. Robert Sirico. Sirico is the founder and leader of the Acton Institute, also based in Grand Rapids. In addition, Weis and his family are involved in the conservative Catholic radio station Holy Family Radio and they are active participants in the anti-abortion March for Life actions.

Leonore Anderson is the President of the Alliance for Safety & Justice, a rather moderate group that has worked on efforts to reform state legislation in numerous states in the US. The Alliance for Safety & Justice is a mild criminal justice reform non-profit.

The third member of the panel was David Guenthner, a senior strategist with the Mackinac Center. Guenthner, who spent years working for another conservative think tank based in Texas, now works for the Mackinac Center which is a strong supporter of privatizing the prison system.

The MLive did not share many details of the panelists or what they were advocating for during the Econ Club gathering. The MLive story did include some comments from Doug DeVos on the subject, even though the article does not indicate in what capacity DeVos was speaking. We assume that DeVos was speaking on behalf of the West Michigan Policy Forum (WMPF), since he wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit News the day after the MLive article on the Econ Club event. 

There is not much compelling information in DeVos’ opinion piece, although he does source specific legislation that the WMPF would like to pass. In fact, the West Michigan Policy Forum has some specific changes they would like to see in the area of Criminal Justice, such as: 

  • Earned time credits (i.e. job training)
  • Removing barriers to employment (licensing reform)
  • Raise the age (allow up to 18 yrs. old in juvenile court)
  • Civil asset forfeiture (require conviction)
  • Cash bail reform (judicial discretion)

Now, these are not bad policies, but they are most definitely mild reforms that do not address more structural issues or root causes. In both the MLive article about the panel discussion and the opinion piece by DeVos, there is not one mention about race, racism or how the current criminal justice system disproportionately impacts black and latinx communities. The West Michigan Policy Forum is not advocating for an end to police violence or ICE repression, they are not calling for a reduction in state or local budgeting for police, they are not calling for an end to private prisons or the end of detention centers for immigrants.

We should not be fooled by the mild criminal justice reforms that the West Michigan Policy Forum are advocating for. These “reforms” do not threatened business as usual politics, but they do benefit the members of the business community that are always looking for new sources of low wage workers and ways to promote the communities where they are based as “safe communities.”

What Michigan and the rest of the country needs is what a growing number of people are gravitating towards, which is a prison abolitionist stance. The Prison Abolition movement states: 

Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people. Because the PIC is not an isolated system, abolition is a broad strategy. An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives.

In more concrete terms, we can look to the vision of the Movement for Black Lives, which has laid out a very clear vision and platform for what prison abolition would look like. In the section End the War on Black People, they list 10 things that would effectively move in the direction of abolishing prisons. In addition, under the section of Community Control, they are calling for democratic control of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. 

These are the kind of visionary goals that we should be working towards, goals that are rooted in radical imagination and not the neo-liberal agenda of those who are part of the existing systems of power and oppression. When are we going to stop celebrating the vision of those who have most of the wealth in this community, while thousands live in poverty? When are we going to stop listening to those who have historically financed politicians that have promoted mass incarceration? When are we going to act in solidarity with those who have been most affected by the Prison Industrial Complex?

How the local news media reported on the Grand Rapids for Education Justice action on Monday

October 10, 2019

On Tuesday, we posted a story about a new community-based effort to challenge what they are calling a two-tiered system of education at the Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

The new movement, Grand Rapids for Education Justice, held a press conference prior to the School Board meeting and provided the local news media with a set of statements that they would be presenting to the School Board members that night.

There were four local news agencies that came to the Press Conference and the subsequent School Board meeting, which is the subject of this posting. We will provide a summary of the local news coverage and deconstruct what each news agency reported.

The first piece we look at is a story done by the local NPR affiliate, WGVU radio. In the WGVU story, provides a fairly accurate picture of Grand Rapids for Education Justice, but singles out just one comment, where the group addressed how the GRPS policies in recent years follow those being implemented by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The WGVU quote is:

“Betsy’s charter ideas are directly related to the school’s transformation plan,” Bierns said. “And that Transformation Plan is changing the look of education in our country today. We are essentially privatizing education in this country and in West Michigan, the home of Betsy DeVos.”  

However, the full statement made by GREJ about Betsy DeVos, which the news media had a copy of was the following:

GREJ opposes the significant influence of the business interests on the school curriculum, business interests who even have their own advisory council in our district. We oppose the charter school-like entities that exist within the GRPS system. We see as a threat the furthering of the corporate model as it is being pushed across the country by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The major difference here has to do with the group’s inclusion of the impact that area businesses are having on school curriculum, not just the influence of Secretary DeVos.

Besides quoting someone from GREJ, the WGVU reporter got a comment from the GRPS communications director John Helmholt, who responded to GREJ’s position that the GRPS was a two-tiered system, saying:

“That is just false and inaccurate, and not really representative of the real numbers,” Helmholdt said. If you look at what we have accomplished under the Transformation Plan, the numbers, graduation rates are up 60 percent, for African-American students, its 75 percent,” he said. Helmholdt added that the district is also investing $17 million to upgrade Ottawa Hills High School. 

In the MLive story, the reporter provided more context about GREJ and quoted three different members, each addressing different points about what they found to be problematic about current GRPS policies. 

MLive also relied on a canned statement from GRPS director of communications, John Helmholt, who continued to dismiss the issued raised and even went so far as to claim the group has, “a lot of false and misleading information that does not present a fair and accurate picture of the district.’’

The one main difference between the NPR story and the MLive story, is that MLive included a response by one of the School Board members, Kristian Grant, who said, “There are disparities and we know that. We are going to be taking a closer look at some neighborhood schools, the schools that need support, and figuring out how do we position board goals and our mission to help uplift these schools and provide even more wrap around support.”

Here, the school board member was not dismissive of GREJ and acknowledged that there were some disparities that needed to be addressed.

The last point about the MLive article worth mentioning is that John Helmholt mentioned  that the school district was investing $17 million into Ottawa Hills, specifically for what the GRPS is calling “career academies.” The one that will be housed at Ottawa Hills will be the Academy for Hospitality and Tourism. These kind of theme schools are specifically designed to direct students into jobs, specifically in the hospitality sector. In an article that appeared about a year ago, the Academy for Hospitality and Tourism will be run by the following partners – GVSU, GRPS, Experience Grand Rapids, and AHC+Hospitality. In addition, there will be, “other industry leaders, who will serve on an advisory board.” 

This last point, where members from the business community will have more direct influence on curriculum in these theme schools, is one of the major concerns that GREJ had raised on Monday and will likely be raising in the near future.

There were also two local TV stations that reported on the the group Grand Rapids for Education Justice and their action on Monday night. WZZM 13 included comments from GREJ from the press conference and the statements made during the School Board’s public comment period. Channel 13 also provided plenty of airtime to John Helmholt, who again was dismissive of the GREJ. However, in the WZZM 13 story, Helmholt himself admits that the most vulnerable students in Michigan have been negatively impacted because of how schools are funded, an admission that Helmholt says has been happening for some time now. Those with GREJ would not disagree with this last statement from Helmholt, since many of the members are teachers who spent more than a decade in GRPS and saw first hand how inadequate funding for the most vulnerable students has hurt the GRPS. 

WXMI 17 also reported on the actions of GREJ on Monday. There wasn’t much of a difference in their coverage, citing a few of the GREJ members and then giving Helmholt the last word.

Because Helmholt was so defensive in his response to what the members of Grand Rapids for Education Justice had to say, they released the following statement in reaction to Helmholt’s dimissive comments:

 

What happens when you are called upon to be an expert witness for an asylum case?

October 8, 2019

(Editor’s Note: Most of this article is adopted from an essay in my book, Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time, with a new asylum example at the end.) 

One of the more interesting and frustrating things that I have participating over the past 20 years has been speaking as an expert witness in Asylum cases for Guatemalans. Being an expert on anything seems a bit awkward, but in light of what the government uses as its “sources” I have come to embrace my experience and understanding as more honest than what the State Department says.

Being asked by immigration lawyers to speak to the current situation in Guatemala is one thing, whether or not the judge will allow you to speak in an expert capacity is another. It is a given that the prosecuting attorney for the government will question my credibility, but when judges have done so it has been frustrating. They are quick to point out that I do not have a degree in Latin American studies. I was not aware that having degrees in anything made you an expert. I have been to Guatemala 9 times in the past 13 years and always on trips that were information gathering at a fairly rigorous pace. I have interviewed hundreds of Guatemalans on their personal experiences with human rights abuses. I have written articles on the subject for various publications in the state and have spoken on Guatemala in over 100 different occasions in churches, schools, forums and as a conference presenter. I also try to read current scholarship, current books, articles and reports.

“The US State Department Report for such and such a year says that, even though Guatemala is experiencing a difficult transition to democracy, there is no real evidence that would support an asylum applicants well founded fear of persecution upon return.” This is what the government attorney usually argues. They only rely on the State Department documents, unquestionably a credible source. Granted it has been even more difficult to argue for asylum since the 1996 peace accords were signed between the Guatemalan government and the URNG, but that has primarily meant a cease-fire, more specifically the dismantling of the armed insurgent group. The military has not downgraded its forces, despite that being an accord agreement and they continue to intervene in domestic affairs. Political violence continues to be a problem. Popular movement groups continue to targeted and the murder of Bishop Gerardi the day after he presented the Catholic Church’s report on who was responsible for the violence during the 36-year war, is a clear indication that the military does not want the truth to be known. Gerardi’s murderers were recently found guilty in Guatemalan courts, a huge victory considering the problem of impunity. One of the guilty parties was Col. Lima Estrada was a graduate of the US Army School of the Americas.

I agree that making a case for Guatemalans seeking political asylum is not easy, but the government’s reasoning is equally not substantial. Even during the worst years of the political violence, the Lucas Garcia/Rios Montt years, it was rare for Guatemalans to be granted asylum. The State Department has considered Guatemala a “democracy” since 1954, so for any Guatemalan to claim a well founded fear of persecution would mean to question the political relationship that the US claims it has with this Central American nation.

In addition to the political inequities that exist at these asylum cases there are also other issues that are problematic. Every case I have been involved in has required a translator, since most Guatemalans do not speak English. Quite often the applicant has limited Spanish, so a Mayan translator is required. This raises further complications, in that during any translation it is difficult to have complete accuracy. I have witnessed the judge address the applicant in English, the lawyer address the applicant in Spanish and the translator address the applicant in Q’anjobal. Words and ideas are bound to get lost, hell I don’t claim to understand most of what judges have to say in English let alone through a translator.

One case I remember was an applicant from Huehuetenago who was in fear of returning because of his refusal to participate in the civil patrols during the 80’s and 90’s. (Civil patrols were created during Rios Montt’s dictatorship as a way of using Mayan males as a buffer between the army and the guerillas. (See Persecution By Proxy: The Civil Patrols in Guatemala, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, 1993) This young man spoke Q’anjobal, so a translator based in California was flown in for the case. The translator was from the same part of Huehuetenango and had no problem communicating the judge or the lawyers’ questions.

When the government lawyer was attempting to discredit the applicant I could tell that the translator was becoming quite agitated. For every comment that was dismissing the young Guatemalans’ position I could see that this Q’anjobal translator wanted to jump up and offer his perspective on the matter. I could see him shake his head in dismay at the government’s reasoning for asylum denial.

When all sides were presented we went to the lobby to await the judge’s decision. No sooner were we all out the door, when the translator let out what he had to suppress in the court room. He couldn’t believe that the judge would actually believe the government lawyer, a lawyer who had no particular knowledge of Guatemala and had never visited there. What this man had to say corroborated what the asylum applicant stated were his reasons for well founded fear of persecution. He said my statements and experience were honest and accurate, but then realized that these proceedings were not about the truth. He said quite simply that this case, like many asylum cases was more about politics than about justice.

I remember leaving the courthouse that day feeling like I have on many occasions embarrassed to be a citizen of the US. The lawyer did request an appeal which was granted, giving the Guatemalan man an additional 6 months to work and maybe save money before his eventual deportation. In the end he had resigned himself to this fate, but I could tell by the look on his face that he would do his best to survive. If anything, to survive is what Mayans have done better than most in recent history. I saw in this young Mayan no consuming rage, rather a sense that he would make the best of his situation and embrace it with dignity. Once again I came away from this experience learning a great deal, not just about our so called justice system, but about what it means to struggle in this world and to live with hope.

It’s now the fall of 2019, and I have once again been asked to act as an expert witness for a woman from Guatemala who is seeking asylum. The woman fled Guatemala several years ago, because of increased street violence and because she was the target of street gangs.

In addition, this woman from Guatemala, an woman who is Mayan, from the region of Quetzaltenango, also wants to argue in her asylum case that racism plays a large role in her reason for a well founded fear of persecution if she were to be deported. Racism is definitely a major issue in Guatemala and has been for the past 500 years, since Spain invaded that region. Guatemala continues to be roughly 60-65% Mayan, yet they have very little representation in government. In fact, many scholars argue that Guatemala is a country of racial apartheid, since indigenous people do not get to determine social, economic and government policies.

On the matter of street gangs threatening her life, the US government doesn’t recognize  gang violence as a legitimate reason for to grant asylum. However, the existence of gang violence is directly due to the inability of the government in Guatemala to provide safety to civil society, along with the corruption within the Guatemalan military and the national police.

I will do my best to provide compelling evidence as to why this Guatemalan woman should be allowed to stay in the US, but the reality is that so few Guatemalans have been granted asylum, even during the years of massive government repression.

New education justice movement confronts the Grand Rapids Public School Board on what they identify as a two-tiered education system

October 8, 2019

Last night, parents, teachers and former educators within the Grand Rapids Public School system held a press conference on the steps of the headquarters of the GRPS.

Calling themselves Grand Rapids for Education Justice (GREJ), they addressed what they identified as a two-tiered education system within the Grand Rapids Public Schools district.

Here is a video that reflects the overall position of those who are part of this movement.

In addition, GREJ released several statements, which they also presented to the Grand Rapids Public Schools board members. A broader statement was also released, one that provides a brief articulation of what they mean by a two-tiered education system.

  • Grand Rapids for Education Justice (GREJ) is against the two-tier education system that exists with GRPS, where students from poor families and students of color disproportionately have access to fewer resources necessary for a proper education, as well as having second-rate facilities. GREJ also objects to the rise of the corporate education model which has led to the privatization of services at GRPS, such as busing services, custodial services, and curriculum, all with separate boards of oversight.
  • GREJ wants to see our teachers be fully respected and with a fair salary, access to their necessary resources, with appropriate classroom sizes and minimal use of substitute teachers as long-term surrogate teachers.
  • GREJ wants our students, parents, and other members of our great diverse community to be enabled to have a larger interactive role in the future of PUBLIC education.
  • GREJ opposes the significant influence of the business interests on the school curriculum, business interests who even have their own advisory council in our district. We oppose the charter school-like entities that exist within the GRPS system. We see as a threat the furthering of the corporate model as it is being pushed across the country by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Before members of GREJ addressed the school board, it was instructive to hear one of the agenda items, where they listed several significant financial donations from members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, such as the DeVos, Cook and Meijer family. 

During the school board meeting, several members of GREJ spoke during public comment, providing statements that made clear the issues this movement has identified.

One of the statements read before the school board last night, ends with the following:

Two tier schools are cruel to disadvantaged students. Michigan schools are among the most segregated in the US according to the Detroit News and GRPS suffers from a double segregation with students sequestered by race income and opportunity. We need signs flashing in front of the lower tier buildings like the one shining incessantly in front of City illuminating the accolade of the second best High School in West Michigan. Imagine an accolade in front of our two tier buildings admitting we will not accept our insufficient reading abilities in this school any longer. We will not claim district success when 74% of our k through 8 readers flunk the state m step reading test. This two tier district will be exceptional when it abolishes it’s academic dichotomy. Lets all strive in this room for educational justice for all of our students.

Another statement read before the school board last night makes this point:

We have not come to place blame, but rather have come to ask you what you as a board are going to do to create an equal playing field for all Grand Rapids Public School students. Our group has FOIA’d considerable data and information from the district in order for us to further evaluate and then disseminate information to the public at large what we see as evidence of this Two Tiered System. Our research indicates that this term may have originated from a study conducted by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, May 13, 2004. The study was titled “50 Years After Brown vs. Board Of Education: A Two Tiered Education System”. The study found that low income students and students of color were too often concentrated in separate and unequal schools. It found that holding students accountable for high standards is unacceptable when districts are unwilling to provide adequate resources, technology, educators, support and facilities.

Each of those involved with GREJ spoke passionately, all with a direct experience as former teachers and parents of students within the GRPS system. One speaker closed with these comments:

Our students deserve a fair, equal, and rewarding educational opportunity. We implore the board to seriously consider what we have presented here tonight and come back to the public with a comprehensive plan that will begin to address and correct the inequity, disenfranchisement, and segregation of the district’s student population.

(You can read all 5 of the statements presented last night, by going to this link.) 

Of course, the protocol of the school board meetings is that there is no conversation nor immediate responses to those who addressed the board. This process doesn’t foster dialogue nor does it encourage people to want to actively engage this elected body. This is not what democracy is supposed to look like. When given the opportunity at the end of the School Board meeting, the acting Superintendent and the other Board members could have said something, but all chose to simply say, No Comment.

Grand Rapids for Education Justice members were not expecting anything but this kind of response. Those involved have been before this board before in different capacities, but the difference here is that they want to build a movement for education justice. To contact Grand Rapids for Education Justice you can send them an e-mail at informedteachers@gmail.com or follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GrandRapidsForEducationJustice/.