Detroit's public schools are in such bad shape right now that schools are literally falling apart as students huddle inside, teachers are organizing sick-outs to call attention to the disaster, and the entire district may be out of money by April. How did it get this bad? Ask Gov. Rick Snyder, who "rescued" Detroit with his emergency manager program.
In Kathy Aaron’s decrepit public school, the heat fills the air with a moldy, rancid odor. Cockroaches, some three inches long, scuttle about until they are squashed by a student who volunteers for the task. Water drips from a leaky roof onto the gymnasium floor.
“We have rodents out in the middle of the day,” said Ms. Aaron, a teacher of 18 years. “Like they’re coming to class.”
Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse. On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools.
As Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, grapples with the crisis in Flint, where residents have been poisoned by the local water supply under a state-appointed emergency manager, he has also had to confront the emergency here, another poor, largely African-American city with a problem that has also festered under state control.
Things have become so bad, district officials say, that the Detroit public school system could be insolvent by April.
“They’re in need of a transformational change,” Mr. Snyder, a Republican, acknowledged in his State of the State speech Tuesday. “Too many schools are failing at their central task. Not all Detroit students are getting the education they deserve.”
Many worry that the state of the schools will hamper Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy, a recovery evident in the new loft-style townhouses and the bustling Whole Foods that Ms. Aaron passes near her school, where she teaches fifth grade.
Residents wonder how the city can ever recoup its lost population and attract young families if the public schools are in abysmal shape.
“As we begin to rebuild this city and we’re seeing money and development moving in, people are understanding that there is no way we can improve Detroit without a strong educational system,” said Mary Sheffield, a native of Detroit and a City Council member. “We have businesses and restaurants and arenas, but our schools are falling apart and our children are uneducated. There is no Detroit without good schools.”
But understand that this unacceptable state of disintegrating, infested, unsafe schools was always the plan, coming from a system starved for years and a largely black populace abandoned by a Republican governor. It will take money, lots of money, to fix these schools and Michigan, like nearly every other Midwestern or Southern red state, is too involved in a race to the bottom to see how badly they can make government work and still get away with it.
Water, schools, roads, this is what happens when you put Republicans in charge and give them a mandate to drown government services in the austerity bathtub, and it's taking largely black communities to be drowned along with it. Snyder's emergency manager law was designed to cull those who don't matter to Republicans and their voters, and people are starting to take notice.
Five years ago, Snyder signed legislation that expanded the reasons why the state could choose to appoint a municipal emergency manager, then granted those appointees almost complete power over their assigned municipalities. Under Public Act 4, as it was called, state-appointed emergency managers could break collective bargaining agreements, fire elected officials and determine their salaries, and privatize or sell public assets.”We can’t stand by and watch schools fail, water shut off, or police protection disappear,” the governor said in a statement defending the emergency management law. “Without the emergency manager law, there is precious little that can be done to prevent those kinds of nightmare scenarios. But with it, we can take positive action on behalf of the people to quickly avert a crisis.”
Emergency management is a way to short-circuit democracy when a city faces financial insolvency, with the idea that a leader free from accountability to voters can make unpopular but necessary decisions. But Michigan voters rejected that law in a state-wide referendum, as many unions and civil rights groups raised alarm that this new breed of emergency managers could break union contracts and usurp local governance. A month later, the state legislature passed a replacement law that made minor adjustments and one major one: an appropriation banning a referendum on the new law. That was 2012.
By 2013, six Michigan cities—and almost half of the state’s African-American population—were under emergency management. In many of these cities, public services were pared down to the minimum. Pontiac’s emergency manager whittled the city’s employees to around 10% of their previous number, outsourcing almost every city service down to its cemetery workers. In an exit interview with Michigan Radio before the Flint water crisis reached its zenith, Flint’s fourth and final emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, reflected on the limited city that emergency managers had left behind. “There’s just a point in time there’s just not enough gas in the tank. There’s just not enough revenue from the local taxpayers to solve the problems that are here,” he said. “Whether the city’s here or not, people will be here. And they’re going to have some basic needs that have to be met, one way or another.”
Detroit, Flint, other black communities were put under emergency management in order to be treated like numbers on a ledger and not human beings with basic rights. This is the result that they were always going to get, because this was always the plan.