Language and privilege make Detroit schools debacle worse
Words can be used to show the same disrespect as a literal slap in the face, or worse.
As a writer, I know that all too well.
But what I can’t figure out, for the life of me, is why Republicans in the Michigan Legislature and the highly financed charter school lobby feel compelled to use the most insulting language to describe the recasting of public education here in Detroit. It has become so common that even press reports now refer to the legislation as a bailout.
Though, I’m pretty sure it boils down to two things: privilege and manipulation.
Why else, for instance, is the package of bills signed by the governor last week still being referred to as a bailout — as if the money included to retire public school debts were some sort of gift to rash, harebrained Detroiters?
The truth is that the vast majority of the debt being relieved — hundreds of millions of dollars — was racked up while the state was supposed to be righting the school district’s financial ship.
And to boot, it’s operating debt — short-term bonds sold to fill year-to-year budget holes.
Ostensibly, the very point of state intervention in the Detroit Public Schools, indeed the very reason our constitution gives the state ultimate authority over local governance, was to make things better. To balance the district’s books. To stabilize the population. To increase quality outcomes.
And I’m someone who fully understands how desperate that need has been in Detroit for a long time. I covered the public schools in Detroit back in the mid-1990s, back before anyone would dare raise a peep about state intervention, and I wrote no small number of stories about the gawking, lousy outcomes, the shameless corruption and the deep resistance to change.
But of course, the ostensible promises of a better future with state management never came to pass, for many reasons. And the end result, after nearly 17 years of in-and-out state oversight, was a fresh mound of debt tearing away at the funds that are supposed to go toward actually educating students.
And it’s not just that the state was responsible on the front end for that debt. As with all debt incurred by school districts in the state of Michigan, this borrowing would have been the state’s responsibility on the back end, too. In fact, had the Legislature not decided to pay it now, and the district fallen into default, the cost to the state would have been more by orders of magnitude.
So calling this a bailout of Detroit serves only to inflate the false sense of privilege that folks in other school districts (and many of their Lansing representatives) often express when they talk about the city, its problems, and how they connect to everyone else in the state.
And it’s an attempt to manipulate the conversation, to say that those of us in the city should somehow be thankful that this was done, rather than relieved that the state decided to clean up its own mess.
It’s not the only example.
Gov. Rick Snyder crows about the legislation’s provision to bring back the elected school board as if it’s a favor. But again, the whole point of state intervention is to be temporary and to provide a stable foundation for the return of elected governance. Talking about it in magnanimous terms pushes the privileged idea that, somehow, Detroiters deserve less than what all other Michiganders have.
I’ve also, over the years, been a harsh critic of Detroit’s elected school board. When I covered the district in the mid-1990s, I wrote about board members paying for Language and privilege make Detroit schools debacle worse: