DETROIT — After the Board of Education announced that 34 public schools would close here by next fall parents, teachers and the community voiced their grave concern over the future of public education.

“We are in a crisis,” said Virginia Cantrell, executive vice-president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. Cantrell said the two main reasons for the closings are the loss of over one-half of the city’s population in the last 30 years, and the growth of charter schools, which have taken students out of the public school system. Charter schools are quickly moving to contact parents in those schools slated for closing, which aggravates the crisis, she said.

While acknowledging the decline in enrollment, Cantrell said the board did not explore other options.

The school closings parallel the massive auto and other plant shutdowns in the 1970s and ‘80s, which resulted in Detroit losing its tax base. Federal budget cuts have added to this predominantly African American city’s troubles, forcing it to reduce to all services, even closing the city’s aquarium.

Children in Detroit, Cantrell said, come into the classroom with more needs due to the economic difficulties their families face. More money is always needed to address this inequality, she said.

“Every parent in Detroit loves their children but they often lack the economic ability” to provide the advantages that are more accessible to children in the suburbs, she added. The closings will have a “devastating” effect on students, teachers and the entire city, she said. “Schools are the hub of a community and when schools close, even more people will leave.”

The closings could also result in oversized classrooms in the remaining schools. Many classes already have 35 to 40 students, while 17 to 18 would be optimum. Students today need more attention from teachers and when classes are too large, students are shortchanged, Cantrell said, adding the union will investigate the board’s class size plans.

Over the last few years, the union and parents have been working closer together on improving public education. More parents see the union, not the Board, making the children a priority.

Before the union knew of the impending budget deficit, Cantrell said, it submitted proposals that would have saved $83 million by focusing on students’ needs and not increasing the board’s bureaucracy.

Michele Artt, member of the union’s COPE committee and a speech and hearing teacher, noted that the federal government has not fully funded “No Child Left Behind” or special education programs. With this, plus the shifting of funding from property to sales taxes in the late ‘90s, dollars for education have been shrinking in this economically depressed state.

Recently, the Catholic Archdiocese also announced 20 schools will close, a further reflection of the hard times here.

“The working class and poor are being left behind increasingly,” Artt said. She added that the union is seeking out former teachers to run for Board of Education in Detroit, “in order to make the board more responsible for putting students’ needs first.”

Urban centers, especially in predominantly Black and other minority areas, are witnessing mass school closings. Citing declines in enrollment, school districts in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis and Baltimore are considering closing or have shut down local schools, creating chaos and numerous problems.

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