Last week Julie Bosman of the NY Times reported on the conclusions of a report by a commission appointed by Governor Rick Snyder himself about what went wrong to allow the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. Bosman quotes Snyder’s commission: “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.” Bosman continues: “In making that declaration, the five-member panel put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease. It also validated complaints long argued by many Flint residents but largely dismissed by Mr. Snyder and others: that race and poverty contributed to the often scornful reactions to their complaints. ‘Flint residents, who are majority… African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,’ the report concluded.”
Like environmental injustice, the denial of educational opportunity in America these days tends to follow the lines of race and class. Children segregated by race and poverty are likely to attend schools that lack necessities along with the amenities that middle class children take for granted. And nowhere is educational inequality more evident than the cities of Governor Snyder’s Michigan. Bosman quotes Governor Snyder’s commission warning, “that emergency managers, who are usually appointed to deal with governments that are in dire financial crisis, as was the case in Flint, were not equipped to handle health and environmental issues, which demand a special expertise… The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and Detroit’s public schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance. (Flint’s emergency manager, Darnell Earley, went on to oversee the Detroit schools until this month.)”
While a deal struck in the Michigan legislature last week will save the Detroit Public Schools from the fiscal collapse due to occur in the first week of April, the legislative “solution” is once again designed to favor the barest fiscal stability. Here is reporter David Eggert’s description of the new plan for the Associated Press: “Michigan lawmakers voted Thursday to extend $48.7 million in emergency aid to keep Detroit’s ailing school district open for the rest of the academic year and avoid the prospect of payless paydays for staff… Thursday was the deadline for lawmakers to act before their spring break. The district’s state-appointed manager has said without the aid, it would be unable to pay employees for work they do after April 8, four days before legislators will return to Lansing. The $48.7 million is a stopgap measure while the GOP governor presses legislators to enact a $720 million restructuring plan to split the district and pay off $515 million in operating debt over a decade. The 46,000-student district has been under state financial management for seven years and is burdened with declining enrollment and low morale that has led to teacher ‘sick-outs’ in recent months.” Nobody has even begun to speculate on how the school district’s long term deficit of $3.5 billion will be addressed.
The new plan is complicated, designed for bare bones fiscal stability, although it at least includes the possibility of regulating an out-of-control charter sector that is swallowing tax dollars. The Detroit Free Press explains: “The legislation would split DPS into a new district that would educate students and be funded by state appropriations, and an old district that would exist only to collect local property taxes to pay off existing debt. Stranding the debt in the old district allows DPS to avoid bankruptcy.” “The legislation, which has the backing of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the governor, would create the Detroit Education Commission, a body that would regulate the openings and closings of traditional public schools and charter schools across the city. The mayor would appoint the commission’s seven members: Three people would have ties to charter schools and three to public schools, with one person from each group a parent. The final member would be an expert in public school accountability systems.” The new law would fund the operation of the Detroit schools with $72 million annually from the state’s tobacco settlement. Additionally the school district would be permitted to borrow $300 million from the state including $200 million in start-up funding. under state takeover
Here is how a new report from researcher Nate Breznau of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research describes the impact of Michigan’s state-appointed emergency managers: “The Flint water crisis is only one of many disastrous outcomes of Michigan emergency management. Others include sale of public parks, libraries, and firefighting equipment. More severe damage occurs through the EM’s power to sell public pensions, nullify collective bargaining contracts, fire public employees at will, and privatize or close schools. Democracy itself has been dispensed with since the EM is not elected and cannot be removed through public will. Despite being guaranteed by the Michigan and U.S. Constitutions, citizens living under an EM no longer rule themselves. Who are these people egregiously stripped of democratic rights? It turns out that they are disproportionately black. A recent study published by me and my co-author from Southern Methodist University, L. Owen Kirkpatrick (both of us lived in Michigan during our research and writing of the study), shows that 10% of all Michiganders have been under emergency management at some point since 2007. Of these, 73% were black while only 21% were white despite Michigan itself being less than 15% black.”
An education crisis is widespread across our nation’s old rust belt cities. With the exodus of manufacturing that comprised the bulk of their property tax bases and with declining populations, cities like Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Youngstown have become increasingly dependent on state legislatures dominated by representatives from suburbs, small towns, and rural areas—legislatures committed to the tax-cutting dogma of governors like Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, and John Kasich. Although privatization through vouchers and rapid expansion of unregulated charter schools was promised as a way to save money, school choice has instead created inefficiency as private operators have sucked students and their per-pupil funding from traditional districts. And too often privatized alternatives have served only the most promising students and failed to serve the students whose needs are greatest. Privatization plans that were sold to save money and expand opportunity have instead further destabilized already struggling school districts. Racially and economically segregated city school districts have become islands of educational desolation surrounded by wealthier suburban districts, small towns and rural areas whose residents are insulated enough from urban America to believe political hucksters who tell them everything will be alright if we just demand that teachers produce higher test scores.
Today’s school reform dogma, epitomized by Detroit—bankrupt under state management and with a huge unregulated charter sector— Milwaukee— under state takeover and with an expensive private school voucher program—and Youngstown—to be taken over and charterized by the state of Ohio—is a complex narrative of denial that contradicts the ideals our society has long proclaimed. Here is how the late Senator Paul Wellstone, in an address at Teachers College, Columbia University in March of 2000, described what he believed is growing injustice in our nation’s public schools: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”