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Flint Water Crisis Good Proxy for Education “Crisis”

January 22, 2016

Today’s NYTimes has an article on the water crisis in Flint MI that illustrates how poor, black residents in Flint MI were provided with contaminated drinking water for over a year in order for the State to save local taxpayers $10,000,000.

As I read the article, I noticed the parallels between what happened in Flint MI and what has happened to public schools serving poor, black children across America. As urban districts and state governments cut back on funds for “failing” public schools, they turn the schools over to privatizers who skim off the best students and pull much needed revenues away from the public schools. Since the privatized charters often have no operational overhead, no legacy costs, and employees on the low end of the pay scale they can make a substantial profit with relative ease. Since the public schools lose revenue but not enough students to painlessly reduce staff they are forced to make cuts that increase class sizes and defer maintenance. The result is predictable: the public schools become increasingly dysfunctional and dilapidated while the charter school shareholders see an increase in their dividends.

And where does this cycle of the destruction of public education take place? In poor, African American communities and cities like Flint, MI that “…do not have the political clout to block them.” So at the same time Flint students were exposed to toxic water they were exposed to a toxic education… and the rationale for both was to save money and ignore the peril that was obvious.

The Times made a point of noting that the Emergency Manager appointed by the Governor was an African American, as if that exonerated him from being accused of making a racially biased decision when it came to drinking water. I just finished reading Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me which describes the insidiousness of racism in our culture. One of the central threads in Coates’ book was the murder of his college classmate Prince Jones by an undercover police officer from Prince George’s County, MD. The police officer in this incident was also African American, but Coates emphasized that the officer’s race was immaterial. The racial profiling by the police was unjust no matter the race of the policeman and the power dynamic of our culture was unjust no matter the race of the individuals who were imposing the “justice” of the culture. The same is true in Flint. The Emergency Manager was imposing unjust and inequitable services on poor African American citizens in the name of fiscal austerity, fiscal austerity that is hobbling the opportunities of school children as surely as it is sickening their bodies. Here’s the rhetorical question John Eligon poses in the opening paragraph of the article:

If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?

And here’s the question I would pose to Governor Snyder and ANY Governor who wants to “take over” a “failing” public school system:

If that school system was rich and mostly white, would you respond more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its dilapidated facilities and overcrowded classrooms?

The test for drinking water and the test for public schools should be identical… and when they are not we cannot pretend that equal opportunity exists in this country.

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