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President Obama visited Detroit on January 20th, 2016 to tout the city’s resurgent auto industry, which, after the federal government’s bailout, has seen a spike in job growth.
Detroit’s educators have taken advantage of the President’s visit to bring attention to the city’s “toxic” schools suffering from years of neglect. They are holding “sick outs,” a protest strategy that bypasses Michigan’s anti-strike laws by having teachers collectively call in sick.
As the New York Times reports, the district recently had to close over 60 schools when teachers didn’t show up for work on a Monday. The teachers demand the district and state alleviate the financial problems of the school system, which appears headed toward bankruptcy. Instead of addressing the teachers’ demands, the district sought a court injunction to prevent further sick-outs. The judge refused to act, and the sick-outs spread, causing nearly every school in the 100-school district to close.
Pictures of the moldy, rat-infested, freezing cold buildings have been shared by teachers on the ground. After a recent visit to one of the schools, American Federation of Teachers’ president Randi Weingarten summarized: “dedicated and caring staff teaching kids in appalling conditions.“
So now national attention is focused on inhumane conditions in two Michigan cities: Flint’s lead-filled drinking water and Detroit’s rotten public schools. The former has garnered the attention of everyone from resident filmmaker Michael Moore to President Obama himself, who said, “I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk.” and declared a federal emergency for Flint. Activists have let the president and the rest of the country know that clean drinking water is not a privilege. It is an inalienable right.
The crisis in Detroit’s public schools has a long history but has not gotten the attention it deserves. For years, teachers have been complaining about miserable learning conditions for students, citing cracked and moldy walls, broken drinking fountains, and woefully inadequate curricula for their students. The schools have only crumbled further under Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s tenure, as, true to his campaign message, he continually seeks to undermine the public good by slashing budgets and services.
According to Alternet, “Flint’s water contamination crisis began in April 2014 after Darnell Earley, an unelected emergency manager appointed by Snyder, switched Flint’s water source to the long-polluted and corrosive Flint River in a bid to save money.” The very same person who ran this life-sustaining public resource to disaster, Darnell Earley, was also chosen to run Detroit public schools in 2014. In Michigan, governors are free to appoint persons of their own choosing to oversee the operations of the Motor City’s schools. DPS has gone through four emergency managers: Robert Bobb, Roy Roberts, Jack Martin, and now Darnell Earley.
One might think Michigan’s relentlessly upbeat governor would draw on all of his resources to improve Detroit’s dilapidated schools. But that would mean Governor Snyder cares about people, specifically people of color, in his charge. In light of the governor’s spectacular failure to support basic public services, why wouldn’t these predominantly Black cities draw attention to their plight? In case of emergency, why wouldn’t the students, parents, and teachers fight back in the name of their survival?
Part of the lack of media attention to DPS may have to do with the narratives about Detroit public schools told by current education “reformers.” Charter schools and free market choice advocates have capitalized on the discord and lack of resources in public schools to recruit students en masse. Charter school student numbers were projected to surpass public school enrollment by last year. With people like Michigan Wolverine basketball star and ESPN commentator Jalen Rose getting into the business, and relentless advertisements all over metro Detroit from these schools, it might seem like an obvious choice for the residents of Detroit to go to charters instead of the public option.
But, as this last month has shown for the rest of the country, The United States of America can no longer guarantee the public that its services are specifically for all of the people. The water problem in Flint is not a problem for the people who can afford filtered water. Coca-Cola and Pepsi haven’t been able to dominate the water industry (not that they haven’t tried) the way the charter school lobby has created a niche because most of us still assume our children can safely drink our tap water without losing I.Q. points. We haven’t had an onslaught of failure, disaster, and hopelessness layered on top of our water system, even when companies like Nestle have profited from the California water crisis to the tune of billions.
Whether by elected school board or emergency manager, students, teachers, and parents in Detroit cannot get the schooling they deserve—except, of course, in the most elite schools. As educators in the classroom continue to be under-resourced and under-valued, they continue to make do with what’s given to them. It’s well known in education policy that 70% of a student’s performance in the classroom is due to out-of-school factors. If the remaining 30% is severely degraded, we give students very little chance for the much vaunted college and career-ready path to success. Even Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years, added his voice to the chorus of the concerned by saying, “There were some schools that were very well-maintained. There were some other schools that would just break your heart, where students wore their coats in class until it was warm enough to take them off or where children couldn't use the gym because of the water damage.”
To whom is it not obvious that schooling is as much a public good as safe drinking water? While Governor Snyder subverts the public will by perpetuating deplorable learning conditions for students who attend DPS schools, educators must subvert anti-striking laws with sick outs.
After this much calamity, I’d be sick of the inequity, too.
José Luis Vilson is a middle-school math educator, writer, activist, and Progressive Education Fellow based in New York City. He writes the blog thejosevilson.com