Earlier this month, President Barack Obama visited Detroit to tout the city’s resurgent auto industry. Some of the city’s educators used the opportunity to bring attention to the city’s “toxic” schools, which are suffering from years of neglect. They began holding sick-outs, protests that bypass Michigan’s prohibition of teacher strikes by having the teachers collectively call in sick.
As The New York Times reported, the Detroit Public Schools recently had to close more than 60 schools when teachers didn’t show up for work.
The teachers want the district and state to alleviate the financial problems of the school system, which appears headed toward bankruptcy. But instead of addressing these demands, the district sought a court injunction to prevent further sick-outs. The judge refused to act, and the sick-outs spread, causing nearly every school in the 100-school district to close.
Teachers on the ground have shared pictures of the moldy, rat-infested, freezing-cold buildings. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has decried the “appalling conditions” under which Detroit teachers and staff must work.
So now national attention is focused on inhumane conditions in two Michigan cities: Flint, because of its lead-filled drinking water, and Detroit, for its rotten public schools. The former has garnered the attention of everyone from resident filmmaker Michael Moore to Obama, who declared a federal emergency for Flint.
The crisis in Detroit’s public schools is no less urgent. For years, teachers have been complaining about miserable learning conditions, cracked and moldy walls, broken drinking fountains, and woefully inadequate curricula. The schools have crumbled further under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s tenure, as he continually slashes budgets and services.
Part of the lack of media attention given to Detroit’s schools may have to do with the narratives being told by education “reformers.” Advocates of charter schools and school choice programs have capitalized on the discord and lack of resources in public schools to recruit students en masse.
Meanwhile, public schools educators continue to be under-resourced and under-valued. It’s well-known in education policy that 70 percent of a student’s performance in the classroom is due to out-of-school factors. If the remaining 30 percent is severely degraded, students have little chance to succeed.
Even Mike Duggan, Detroit’s first white mayor in 40 years, has added his voice to the chorus of the concerned, saying he’s seen school conditions “that would just break your heart, where students wore their coats in class until it was warm enough to take them off or where children couldn’t use the gym because of the water damage.”
To whom is it not obvious that schooling is as much a public good as safe drinking water? So long as Snyder perpetuates deplorable learning conditions for Detroit’s public school students, educators are doing the right thing by calling in sick.
Jose Luis Vilson is a middle-school math educator, writer, activist and Progressive Education Fellow based in New York City. He writes the blog thejosevilson.com and wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.