Detroit’s public school teachers are staging mass “sickouts” – essentially striking by calling in sick – to protest what they call “deplorable conditions” in the financially-troubled city. Fed up teachers have recently taken to social media to document the shocking conditions of Detroit’s public schools: roaches, rats, mold, fungus, crumbling ceilings, dirty water flooding rooms, a lack of textbooks and other supplies, and as many as 45 students to a classroom.
The sickouts started on January 11 and have gained considerable momentum since then, with 91% of Detroit’s public schools being closed on Wednesday because of an insufficient number of teachers. Rather than address the despicable conditions in the schools, Detroit Public Schools has has filed an emergency motion for a restraining order and preliminary injunction that would stop the teachers from continuing the strike.
The crisis in Detroit is inextricably linked to the ongoing Flint water crisis, in which the poor, majority-African-American city’s water supply was disastrously polluted with lead as complacent state officials laughed. Darnell Earley, the same state-appointed official who oversaw Flint’s descent into chaos as the city’s emergency manager, was recently appointed emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools, arousing significant anger from teachers.
More fundamentally, both crises ultimately stem from Republican governor Rick Snyder’s disastrous neoliberal economic policies, that have blew a nearly $500 million hole in the state’s budget. The state of Michigan’s decision to shift Flint’s water source to the heavily-polluted Flint River was simply damage control meant to save a few million dollars for the beleaguered state budget. To the wealthy lawmakers in Lansing and their corporate constituencies, the poor minority populations of cities like Flint are clearly expandable to save corporate handouts. The situation in Detroit, which officially declared bankruptcy in 2014 and has been under state-appointed emergency custodianship for years, is similar. As deindustrialization fed by neoliberal Reaganomics has depopulated Detroit and decimated its economic base, the city has amassed enormous debt.
To the Republicans in the state house, this debt warranted state control of the city (although apparently the massive state debt doesn’t justify emergency control of Lansing). Of course, under the control of the state’s emergency managers – who essentially exist to salvage whatever is left of Detroit’s finances for investment firms and slash services for citizens in return – the city’s finances have only worsened, and this is reflected in the condition of the Detroit Public Schools. The school system now has to pay some $26 million in monthly debt payments on some $260 million in loans taken out from investment firms over the course of Earley’s management – almost twice the debt as before he took control last year. This mirrors the situation in other aspects of the city’s finances, where emergency managers have been quick to discard pensions for city workers and services for residents and use what’s left in the city’s coffers to finance payments to the city’s corporate investors.
Michigan – and especially its poor and minority residents – are currently in the midst of a statewide crisis, and the clear culprit is the failed trickle-down policies of Rick Snyder and his conservative cohorts in Lansing. What is happening now in Michigan – from decaying rat-infested schools to poisoned water supply while the state’s corporate barons feast – is the ultimate embodiment of neoliberal economics that sees the poor as expendable objects to manipulate for the benefit of the corporate leaders who receive endless handouts from Lansing.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.