Austerity, Philanthropy, and Urban Education: DeVos, Broad, and Detroit’s School System

Authors: Dan Cohen*, Queen's University
Topics: Economic Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: philanthropy, education, austerity, urban geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 2:25 PM / 3:40 PM
Room: Columbine, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Terrace Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Over the course of decades, the health of the Detroit Public School system was degraded through neglect, racial hostility, and austerity budgets. As the school system struggled under the resulting financial pressures it was placed under the emergency management of the State of Michigan. In place of democratic control, this important system of social reproduction was governed by a series of emergency managers who worked closely with billionaire philanthropists to restructure the city’s education system. As a result of their efforts half of Detroit’s public schools were closed and replaced with new market-oriented schools that relied on new technologies. At the same time efforts to expand these projects to richer, whiter suburbs were unsuccessful.

This paper examines the politics of this moment, exploring how the Detroit Public School system was subject to the connected projects of state austerity and philanthropy-led policy. At this moment of the pull-back of state power and the disenfranchisement of the city’s Black majority, emergency managers willingly turned over control of the future of the city’s schools to billionaires who wished to pursue pet projects. Through data gathered through qualitative fieldwork and publicly-released e-mails of emergency managers, I argue that state abandonment of its social responsibilities was twinned with its handover to elites who remade Detroit’s education system in a manner that fit their views of social reproduction. I further illustrate that this project was made possible through racist depictions of Detroit’s residents and politicians that undercut local efforts to resist the imposition of these logics

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