Date: March 23, 2019; May 4, 2019
Tom Pedroni was born in New Jersey, but “grew up in cow country in southwest Ohio in the small university town of Oxford.” He was an activist well before he was ever an academic. “I went to college because I was supposed to go to college. That was the expectation of me, and I quickly drifted over to people who were doing work around critical theory.” He was disappointed, however, that the theory was not grounded in action. This is when he found people working in education. “I came across some people who were doing amazing work in education around critical pedagogy and critical theory and inspired by the work of Paulo Freire.” This felt home to him. “This is where the critical language actually hits the ground and connects with real institutions, schools, knowledge building, and that’s why despite the very low prestige given to education…I wanted to work in education.”
Tom went to the University of Wisconsin, where he received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Education. He taught in public schools for a few years in New Orleans, Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina and in St. Paul, Minnesota, to gain practical experience. He wanted to have “credibility as someone talking about schools to actually have spent some time struggling within them.”
Tom is now a professor at Wayne State University in curriculum studies in the College of Education. He has worked with community advocacy organizations like Keep the Vote/No Takeover, Detroit Life Coalition, and Michigan We Choose (an affiliate of the national Journey for Justice Alliance). “I felt very alienated from academia because it seemed like a way that an activist spirit was oftentimes co-opted and subdued.” It took him a while to find a meaningful way to connect his profession with his politics, before realizing that his activism could be “working in an academic sense producing knowledge and doing research and networking with communities” that were addressing the issues he cared about.
In his research and analysis, Tom has developed frameworks to understand neoliberal efforts to privatize public education. “There is huge potential money to be gained in a city like Detroit.” Michigan has a finance system of per-pupil funding, where dollars follow the student. “Black students, white students, all students–are a valuable commodity, about $8,000 a pop, which can fuel those contracts.”
The neoliberal agenda for education feeds into a broader racist political agenda of divestment and dislocation. “You need to think about education, about schools as representing places of Black identity. So you need to disrupt and destroy important markers of Black identity both because they signal Black identity to people who might come in and gentrify, but also because they fuel the spirit of Black folks who remain in those neighborhoods.” Schools are central to both processes. “So, destroying their school is like destroying the heart, the soul of a neighborhood oftentimes. They are one of the most important cultural markers in neighborhoods. So when you lose 200 of 300 schools, think about what that means in terms of the identity, as well as all of the social networks that are built into those individual schools.”
For the city, the neoliberal agenda was mapped out in Detroit Future City’s 2012 strategic framework plan to shrink the city’s infrastructure and services. “What Detroit Future City does is triage the whole city into–it doesn’t call them neighborhoods, it calls them housing markets, so what we used to think of as a poor housing market has now been reconceptualized.” We used to think of poor neighborhoods as a warrant for greater government assistance. Not anymore. “In the market, failing businesses need to be shut down. The same thing was now held over to whole neighborhoods.” We do not assist, we shut down.
Traditional theories of the state focused on the social contract, the obligations the state has to its citizens. “But now, that notion has completely shifted where in neoliberalism times, the role of the state is to compete against other states…or other countries for foreign investment.” Governments are no longer supposed to provide basic services to citizens, but instead run like businesses.
The same logic applies to schools. Different types of schools will have different kinds of futures in Detroit. Tom sees schools in gentrified territories becoming “beachhead schools that people who don’t want to go to school with most people of color will be willing to send their children. And the other schools, you know, are experiencing massive disinvestment.”
For Tom, these issues are not just matters of academic interest. He has actively worked with community organizations to challenge educational racism in the city and state. Tom began working with the School Board in Exile in 2010 and when Roy Roberts was appointed as the second emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools in 2011, he knew it was time to get off the sidelines and really get involved. “I started to hear the amazingly stupid things and incorrect things that emergency managers were saying in the public domain and weren’t being called out by anyone,” he remembers. He began working with activists like Helen Moore, Aliya Moore, and Elena Herrada while using his research to expose the harmful actions of emergency managers and support the work of organizers.
One of his most important influences has been long time organizer Queen Mother Helen Moore. While mainstream media and city officials have tried to marginalize her, “one of the first things that became clear to me is that everything she was saying was true,” Tom reflected. “Like, she would say things that to me seemed–this was when I was first getting to know her–to me seemed to be dubious…but I would always find out that when I actually began to dig into it that, oh my God, she’s right!” As a lifelong advocate for Detroit’s children, Tom describes Mother Moore as the “patron saint of what’s good, moral and sacred in Detroit.”
Tom has applied his research skills, relationships with community activists, and understanding of institutional racism to a wide range of educational issues impacting the city of Detroit, including:
- 1999 State takeover of DPS: He examined the history of the 1999 state takeover, looking at pre- and post-comparisons of enrollments, test scores and finances. The analysis shows that DPS was performing relatively well, before the takeover, that the district lost enrollment under state control, had lower test scores and was in worsening financial condition when the schools were handed back in 2006.
- Role of school reforms in New Orleans: After Hurricane Katrina, the public school system was dismantled. The subsequent market-based, neoliberal reforms were “sold” as a model for Detroit and other cities to follow.
- The role of the Skillman Foundation: In creating Excellent Schools Detroit, Skillman was committed to the abolition of the elected school board and establishing a Board under Mayoral control, the creation of a recovery school district, like the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA), and providing parents with performance measurements of schools to facilitate more effective school choice. Skillman’s money and influence played a critical role in setting the direction of education policy in Detroit from emergency management onward.
- Teach for America: Teach for America was used as a cost-cutting measure in Detroit schools, but also to displace more experienced teachers who might be less compliant with the new series of market-based reforms.
- Oakman School: The closure of Oakman school was an early battle under emergency management. It demonstrated that research and reason alone did not matter. Every factual claim justifying the decision to close a school could be proven wrong, but the emergency management directive would not be changed. No change would be made because officials in power did not care about facts or disabled kids in Detroit. The Oakman School fight demonstrated that facts must be joined with cultivating a movement and a network of power relations.
- Emergency management and the media: Detroit media was unwilling to publish stories critical of emergency management, even op eds. Tom’s efforts to factually counter egregious misrepresentation by the emergency manager, such as that the manager would spend upwards of 90% of budget in the classroom (in contrast to the elected school board’s 55%), or that test scores were increasing, when in fact they were falling, had to fight mightily to reach the light of day.
- Educational Achievement Authority (EAA): The EAA was a state takeover of a state takeover. It was ill-conceived and poorly implemented, but protected by politicians and the media. The number of damaging revelations that were necessary to undermine the EAA’s assumed credibility was outrageous. The EAA lied about its test scores and used invalid assessment instruments, disproven pedagogic techniques, and unproven education software from private companies that treated Detroit children as test subjects. This cascade of documented disasters finally turned the EAA toxic.
- Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children: Tom raises criticisms of the work of the Coalition and questions its recommendation for a Detroit Education Commission (DEC) to rationalize school openings and closings. He advocated vesting that authority in a democratically elected school board.
- Taking the battle statewide: The fights that started in Detroit have gone state-wide. The state uses dual academic and financial criteria to target and punish predominately Black school districts. The entire Highland Park school system has been charterized. The school districts in Inkster and Buena Vista have been simply eliminated, leaving nothing but the debt. School districts in Marshall and Albion have been consolidated to the detriment of Black children. The schools in Benton Harbor would not exist now, but for the movement against emergency management that started in Detroit and is currently active across the state.
- 2016 Detroit teacher walkouts: In 2016, Detroit teachers orchestrated a walk out to highlight health dangers to students and staff, given the horrific state of the schools. The walkout narrative consciously built upon dangers of emergency managers in Flint and the impact of the Flint water crisis on children. Darnell Early, the same emergency manager in Flint was now, unbelievably the emergency manager of DPS. The walkout gained much needed attention to the plight of Detroit schools.
Tom’s research provides a deep and detailed assessment of education issues in Detroit and Michigan in the shadow of emergency management. Through these struggles, Tom has also learned “that just having the facts is not enough…it’s building relationships that can put pressure on people in quantifiable ways that you can really get things done.”
His experiences also offer lessons for white academics on how to work effectively with community groups as partners. Understanding the long histories of white academics operating in colonial ways in Black communities, Tom has had to “gradually learn what does it mean to really struggle with the community and to not need to take things over and to actually be useful and not to be colonial.” He acknowledges those histories present challenges to building real trust in a majority-Black city and admits to “the faux pas that I’ve made” while working with community organizations. “I’ve had a lot of learning to do,” he reflects.
There were also lessons to be learned about how racism is embedded in power structures and how to leverage positionality to support anti-racist struggle. Public forums in which the final DPS emergency manager Steven Rhodes was dismissive of Black women speakers but receptive to Tom revealed that “the expertise of the African American women warriors is not accepted until a white male says that it’s true.” Queen Mother Moore recognized this and asked Tom to leverage his positionality to gain an audience with Rhodes for Black activists. These dynamics raise important strategic questions for community members and academics alike.
Tom was asked: “Where does hope come from?” He answered: “I’m a very strong believer in participatory democracy or participatory governance.” But these processes do not happen by themselves. “I believe in that spirit of grassroots research justice. I think knowledge is an important part of the component, and I’m deeply interested in democratizing knowledge, along the lines Paulo Freire. Knowledge needs to be put in the hands of the people.” But the knowledge of the people also has to be respected. “We have different knowledge based on our positionality, and it’s the accumulation of that knowledge and that analysis that becomes really dangerous to powerful people.”
Tom Pedroni, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, March 23, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.