The conditions in the Detroit Public Schools are beyond belief. I cannot imagine sending my children to rat-infested, moldy, cold and dangerous schools—nor can I imagine being able to teach under those conditions. There are not enough teachers and not enough supplies. When I taught in Detroit’s inner city fifty years ago, I had forty-three third graders, but the building was clean, welcoming and safe. We had adequate materials. It is so ominous for so many impoverished communities that conditions have worsened to such an extent.
I listen carefully to teachers working in our public schools and all of them are discouraged and disheartened. They feel blame from all corners—administrators, parents, politicians and the public. This isn’t new, but with dwindling funds, conditions and morale are much worse. The following reaction in The Guardian on January 12, 2016, is a typical response. I doubt that the attorney general has investigated the schools by touring these places with such awful, health-threatening conditions. I hope his response would be different. Once again, our extreme separations cause these less-than-compassionate responses. Once again, it is black children who suffer.
Asked by the Detroit News about the legality of Monday’s protest, a spokesperson for Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, side-stepped the question, instead slamming the teachers’ move: “Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”
“Outrageous” is the right term for what is happening to children, parents and teachers in Detroit. Where does the responsibility for this situation lie? My friend Amber Hughson’s comments about institutional racism say it well:
Imagine yourself in elementary school, showing up for your day and seeing rats crawling across the floor of your classroom. Sleet and rain coming into the room where there’s [ black mold]. The textbook you’re working out of is a decade old and ripped. Imagine that you’re black and the majority of the kids around you are black. Imagine that as you go through school you become more and more aware that other kids in other places don’t go to schools like this.
What would this tell you about how you are valued, who cares about you, or whether or not your education–or your life–matters?
There is more segregation in American schools now than there has been since . And here we are today–just down the street teachers are being told that they are hurting students by protesting (using their sick days, because it is illegal for teachers to strike in Michigan). Our government is vilifying educators who work in buildings where the gym floor is swollen into hills and the playground is closed off because hot steam is pouring out of a broken pipe.
This is not desegregation. This is not even separate but equal. If you want evidence of institutionalized racism–this is everything. If you want evidence of class privilege–this is everything. Every single public school should have the same quality of facilities and materials, regardless of the class or race of the adults in the surrounding community. Education and opportunity are how you get people out of poverty–yet we create deeper and deeper poverty by giving more and more opportunity to the students attending school in West Bloomfield, MI and then allow students in Flint and Detroit, MI to go to crumbling schools where certified teachers won’t even take jobs (as they shouldn’t under these conditions).
You cannot get more intersectional than this issue–unions, which are democratically created and run organizations are being destroyed by politicians who know unions (a now dirty word for ‘organized citizens’) are the one strong force which fights for low wage workers to get out of poverty. Those unions cannot represent the interests of these teachers (who are mostly women) because we have made it illegal for teachers to strike; we’ve done this in the name of students–the very students who are mostly minorities and who are hardly receiving an education at all because our state funds for schools are not equal and our education system and society are deeply segregated.
If you believe in justice, equity, and the right to dignity for all children–do not disparage these teachers. Fight for better schools in Detroit, and I promise you will be on the side of what is right.