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Punishing the messengers

Feb 3, 2016

Back in the bad old final years of the Soviet Union, when the economy and the infrastructure were falling apart and the government was mostly non-responsive, there was a sour little joke that reminds me of Michigan today.

In the Soviet story, Stalin and Konstantin Chernenko, one of his increasingly ineffectual successors are going across Siberia on a train. Suddenly, it breaks down. There are, of course, no spare parts.

When the engineer can’t get it started, Stalin has him shot.

That doesn’t help.

So after sitting there for a while, Chernenko says, “Okay. Let’s close the blinds and pretend the train is moving.”

Which brings us to the Legislature and the Detroit Public Schools. The schools are in disgraceful shape. Buildings are falling apart. The heat doesn’t work. There are rodents, mold and a lack of necessary supplies. Teachers are underpaid, overstressed, and often at risk of violent behavior.

Frankly, I don’t know how so many teachers have tolerated this as long as they have, and I’m awestruck that so many have continued to try to teach often hungry, uncomfortable and miserable students in such conditions.

After years of this, teachers have begun staging sickout wildcat strikes in a desperate attempt to draw attention to their plight.

Teacher strikes are of course technically illegal, though they have been an occasional and largely tolerated bargaining tactic in suburban districts for decades. This isn’t about getting a raise, however; it is a desperate attempt to get somebody to notice the squalor. Unfortunately, many legislators couldn’t care less. Detroit is a long way from their districts. Though none will say so publicly, many of them view what’s going on from a racist perspective.

They think this is about a bunch of blacks who ran their schools into the ground and now want another state bailout. There’s also another ingredient in what is fast becoming an explosive dynamic: the Republican legislative leaders hate unions, and teachers’ unions in particular.

So instead of trying to do something to help the schools, they are instead attempting to ram through a three-bill package designed to harshly punish both teachers and their unions for striking.

Ron Bieber, the state president of the AFL-CIO, correctly said this was an outrage, and added “the last thing we should be doing is punishing teachers for speaking up and shining a light” on the impossible conditions in which children are forced to learn.

The lawmakers may not care less about that, but the reality is they are also just giving out tickets on the dance floor of the Titanic. With their revenues largely drained by the loss of students to charter schools and other alternatives, the Detroit Public Schools are headed for bankruptcy and disaster.

They will run completely out of cash by May.

Governor Snyder months ago offered a sensible solution, but it would cost money the legislators are unwilling to spend. Unfortunately, bankruptcy will cost us all much more, as the state does have an obligation to educate our children.

Our lawmakers are, in the words of the old Soviet story, trying to shoot the engineers and close the curtains of this runaway train. But unless we do something soon, it is going to go off the rails, with consequences devastating for us all.

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.