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The Agony of Detroit’s Schools

Jan 12, 2016

Well, the governor is finally paying attention to the water scandal in Flint, and there seems to be general recognition that the state really screwed up. Even Rick Snyder said as much yesterday, though in convoluted language.

Children were poisoned because of actions taken by state government, and finally, belatedly, there’s an effort to do something about it.

But children are being irreversibly harmed in Detroit, too, and we’re not willing to do anything about it. I’m talking about the more than forty thousand kids who are still enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. This time, this is not the governor’s fault.

Snyder bears plenty of the blame for the inaction in Flint. But in Detroit, he’s been about the only actor in state government trying to do something. He has proposed a sensible plan that would split the district into two entities, sort of like General Motors during the bankruptcy.

This would, over time, cost the state something more than $700 million dollars. This would allow the schools to retire their massive and crippling debt, and free up money that would be used to properly educate the students, and provide the schools with the funds to buy the students not only books, but toilet paper.

The schools would also be able to do things like get rid of the rats that infest too many of them. But the legislature shows no sign of the slightest willingness to help.

These are, after all, poor black kids who live a long way from the comfortable rural, suburban and small-town lives of most Republican lawmakers. They see little to be gained by helping them.

Of course, you don’t have to have a doctorate in sociology to know that not educating these kids is going to cost our society far more than a few hundred million dollars. But by that time, everyone in today’s government will have moved on to other jobs.

Detroit teachers, bitter, overworked and underpaid, are currently staging a sickout at dozens of schools. It is the only thing they can think of to do. They have been almost universally denounced by the authorities, but there are some signs their protests have had some effect. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who is not directly responsible for the schools, vowed to take action to see that the buildings are as good as the health and safety codes require.

This is, we might remember, the United States of America, not the third world. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the schools’ financial crisis. Those who blame the city need to know that most of this debt was incurred under state-appointed emergency managers.

Those who blame the state need to remember the huge contracts and obscene buyouts the elected board gave to a succession of superintendents.

Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, reached out to me this weekend.

“The indifference to the plight of the children of Detroit is heart-wrenching,” he said. “What is happening in Flint and Detroit is not happening to “THOSE” kids but to OUR children,”

he told me.

“Where is the shared vision to lift all of us?”

That’s a good question. You might want to ask our legislative leaders why they refuse to answer.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.