A history of takeovers and interventions on behalf of students, but to what end?
Emergency financial management in Michigan has had several incarnations, but originally dates back to 1988 in Hamtramck, a small and mostly-white city essentially surrounded by Detroit. In 1990 the state’s powers were expanded to school districts, although it wasn’t used in this capacity until much later. With all of the attention paid to Michigan’s spectacular failures in Flint and the abhorrent state of Detroit’s schools, it is important to place this within an historical context. At best, Michigan’s track record of intervention is one of consistent incompetence; at worst, one of downright malice directed chiefly at poor and black municipalities. Black children in Michigan deserve real accountability and real change.
The Children of Flint in the Midst of Crisis
If your goal is to hinder the development of a city an extremely effective method is to target its schools. From the CDC, “low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.” There’s no ambiguity in that statement; the children of Flint are mentally scarred for life as a direct result of Michigan’s leadership. In 2014, under Flint’s sixth state-appointed emergency financial manager (EFM) Darnell Earley, the predominantly black city changed its water source and the state simultaneously ignored citizens’ concerns while making sure that their Flint employees had potable water trucked in. These insults combined with the ridiculous amount of time that passed before Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency show a blatant disregard for the residents of Michigan’s seventh largest city.
The $500 Million Question of Detroit’s Schools
I’m a product of Detroit Public Schools (DPS). I grew up watching the city falter alongside the automotive industry as we lost the low skill, high-wage jobs that once made Detroit such an attractive home. One especially bleak point is the city’s schools, where we see that rampant mismanagement and neglect have created dangerous learning conditions and a snowballing debt. Fortunately, Detroit’s teachers are fighting for students. Detroit schools’ first taste of state control came in 1999 when Michigan installed a reform board that superseded the local elected politicians. The state claimed this intervention was to curb low performance, while others believe Michigan desired control of a $1.5 billion bond passed a few years prior. Under state management from 1999–2005, DPS went from a $114 million surplus to a $31 million deficit. Since 1999 enrollment has declined from 173,000 students to less than 50,000 today, and in that time has only been controlled by democratically-elected leadership for about three years. Despite thesestaggering failures, Michigan drags its feet on taking financial responsibility for the district’s debt, for which estimates range from $500 million in operating debt to $3.5 billion in total debt. The latest plan involves breaking the district into two entities: one saddled with the old debt, the other debt-free which would take on all of the students. One will be under local democratic control, the other will be run by the state. I’ll leave you to guess who will control which district.
Let’s Not Forget About the State-Run EAA District
In 2011 Michigan decided to try its hand at creating a statewide district made up of its lowest-performing schools similar to the Recovery School District in Louisiana. Beginning in Detroit with promises to expand statewide, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) was an initiative of Governor Snyder, created through a partnership between a local university and DPS (signed by then-EFM Roy Roberts). Contentious from the outset, the EAA took over 15 Detroit schools and sought to use innovative technology to change the educational paradigm. As in Louisiana and Tennessee, this was a difficult transition and five years later we see the district abandoned by its university partner after years of poor performance.
The Intersections of Democracy and Race in Michigan
At least half of Michigan’s black residents live in cities touched by the unelected emergency financial managers who seem to swap cities like trading cards. All five school districts that have been taken over or closed by the state under this law have been predominantly black, and the results have implications for the entire nation as more states consider similar legislation. When Michigan voters repealed the emergency manager law in the November 2012 election, Snyder had it replaced before the year ended. Just like the irreversible damage in Flint, many other communities have found themselves hurt by Michigan-style reform under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Who do we hold responsible for these failures? Is this a “culture of poverty” problem? Perhaps decades of mismanagement can’t be undone in just a few years of reform. Regardless of the cause, I can’t understand why we keep trusting Michigan to solve it alone. Michigan needs heightened public scrutiny, better responsiveness to its residents, and strong accountability measures when it falls short. Without those strategies, I think we’ve only begun to see the suffering to come.
Detroit Free Press (@freep) February 09, 2016