Flint water crisis, Detroit schools a major reckoning for a once-proud state

The Flint River in downtown Flint.
The Flint River in downtown Flint.

In case you didn’t notice, the lead poisoning water crisis that is right now engulfing Flint is playing out in concert with the out-of-control dumpster fire that is the Detroit Public Schools, where it’s gotten so bad that teachers are staging “sickouts” from the classroom to focus attention on decrepit working conditions and abysmal staff morale. The emergency financial manager says the district will soon run out of money.

Lest you thought the worst of our state’s financial crises was fixed when the city of Detroit exited bankruptcy, these twin crises remind us that this state is hardly out of the woods yet. There could well be more to come.

Added together, the two are a full-blown emergency for Michigan.

Though blame clearly deserves to be spread widely in both cases, both issues have state government’s fingerprints all over them, with emergency managers either pushing disastrous decisions (in Flint, by deciding to switch municipal system to the highly corrosive Flint River) or unable to right a district (DPS) that is hemorrhaging students and money.

Bills come due

In Flint, a water system fix could cost $1.5 billion, by the mayor’s estimation, not including the public health costs for providing support to the families of lead-sickened children. DPS’s price tag may be harder to gauge.

Lansing effectively owns both issues now. The federal government, too, as President Obama’s emergency declaration demonstrates.

Both cases have their roots in long-running economic collapse and the resulting poverty — two issues the state has for years chosen to ignore.

No more.

An abandoned and crumbling public school in Detroit.
An abandoned and crumbling public school in Detroit.

The situations in both Flint and Detroit’s public schools are the rotten fruit of public policy that long ago turned its back on Michigan’s two most economically crippled cities, even as the problems and life on the ground for residents worsened. They will cause untold years — probably lifetimes — of harm to children.  That is the absolutely heartbreaking reality of this, that as a society, we are being complacent to the sacrifice of an entire generation of kids. Our collective inaction implies that poor black kids don’t matter.

As wake-up calls go, this one’s a big one, and it’s painful. We should feel ashamed. The Flint water crisis and the failures of DPS to adequately educate children in Detroit will cause deep psychic scars in a state that already suffers from a rising poverty rate and other woeful socioeconomic data, and whose biggest cities for too long have been abandoned and neglected.

Learn from mistakes?

However, as the saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity.

Make no mistake: Dramatic changes are coming for both Flint and Detroit Public Schools. The former will live on; the latter may not.

Let’s say that the estimate of $1.5 billion to fully modernize Flint’s water infrastructure is correct and pretend that the state and feds combine to cough up that much money. Can you imagine the economic impact that could have for that city? Or the sense of pride and gratification it would bring to the (heavily unionized) workers who would install it, knowing full well that they were being tasked with ensuring the future safety of residents by building a state-of-the-art water system?

The path forward for DPS is much less clear. There are encouraging models out there for turning around poor urban schools, but it’s not clear that our elected officials in Lansing even understand the gravity of the situation. This is a Legislature that, despite an excellent Free Press series that found charter schools in Michigan spend $1 billion a year in taxpayer funds but perform on the whole no better than public schools and with far less transparency or accountability, essentially shrugged its shoulders and said “meh.” Whose leaders point to “Detroit fatigue” when explaining why a DPS fix isn’t on their list of priorities.

Well, too bad. The time of pretending these problems don’t matter to Michigan as a whole has run out, and the bill is coming due.

The question now is, will we see this moment as an opportunity to make real and meaningful policy changes and invest in our decaying urban systems? Or will we continue to issue more Band-Aids and simply keep appointing emergency financial managers to count beans while Rome continues to burn?

Creative Commons photos by Sarah Razak and Nitram242

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