Social Contract Broken in Inkster and Buena Vista, Michigan

Last Friday I posted news about Michigan’s shutting down two public school districts less than a month before the opening of school.

This summer, the Michigan legislature passed and Governor Rick Snyder signed Public Act 96, which allows the state to dissolve struggling school districts.  In Buena Vista and Inkster, the two school districts in question, students are being sent elsewhere or left to scramble to find a place in a neighboring school district or charter school,  according to reporter Joy Resmovits in Buena Vista School District, Inkster School District Closings Strand Michigan Students, Teachers.

Under the leadership of Governor Rick Snyder, Michigan has been rushing to appoint emergency fiscal managers for cities and school districts. Michigan’s emergency managers can dissolve previously agreed upon union contracts and fire staff without oversight by any elected body.  Mayors, city councils, school superintendents and elected school boards can only stand by and watch.

Detroit’s bankruptcy is the most widely publicized example of this kind of leadership that is destroying public institutions across Michigan.  And this week Governor Snyder added Pontiac to the list of school districts in financial emergency and facing the appointment of an emergency manager.

How all this is going to work in the next month for the neighboring school districts receiving students from Buena Vista and Inkster remains murky.  According to the Detroit Free Press, “Buildings and assets owned by and located in the dissolved districts will become part of and owned by the school districts that will receive students after boundaries are redrawn. The school millages in the dissolved districts, however, would remain in the associated municipalities to pay off the school district’s debt.”

Describing the shutdown of the Buena Vista district, Resmovits writes:  “The Intermediate School Districts, the governing agencies that oversee clusters of school districts, are parceling out the students elsewhere. In Buena Vista, most of the students are winding up in Saginaw, a district that is also running a serious deficit.  Saginaw’s financial straits are no less concerning… because they are already about $5 million in deficit but will now have to maintain five empty Buena Vista school buildings.”

For the displaced students and the teachers the situation seems catastrophic less than a month before school is set to begin.  Resmovits describes parents desperate to locate appropriate services for children with special needs.

It is difficult to discover and sort out all the factors that have contributed and are contributing to the collapse of the public across Michigan.  While the school districts themselves are being blamed, the problem is far more complicated than merely the mismanagement of two tiny school districts.

Part of the cause is globalization and the movement of industry out of Rust Belt states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  In every state a good part of the problem is also a school finance system that has failed to provide funding equity; in these situations the burden too often falls on poor Black communities on the outskirts of very poor big cities—East St. Louis, East Cleveland, East Chicago, Indiana—and in Michigan, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Highland Park.  These are communities where the industrial tax base has collapsed and funding public services is problematic.

Another very serious problem is austerity budgeting across the states and at the federal level.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has continued to warn that states will not fully recover from the 2008 recession for some time.  In this context, further tax-cutting will likely slash essential services and damage public agencies.

Because state school funding systems overly rely  on local property taxes for public education and because state legislatures are dominated by representatives of rural communities and the suburbs, political power ensures that real equity is almost never achieved.  New Jersey is an exception because of the long-running Abbott v. Burke school funding litigation, but even in New Jersey the plaintiffs have been forced to return to court for decades to ensure compliance.

The social contract is merely a set of assumptions we make about who we are as a society and how we define our responsibilities to each other.  For two centuries the provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—has been assumed to be part of the American social contract. During those two centuries improving access to public education is one way we have worked to make real the rights promised in our national ideals—equality, opportunity, freedom.

Watching the breakdown of the social contract in Michigan—public school districts being dissolved just as families are getting ready for the beginning of school—is a frightening thing.  What does this mean about America today?

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