Hope and Justice: A Critical Race Theory Perspective on Michigan Schools Debt Elimination
By Dr. Patrice S. Johnson One hundred fourteen million dollars in debt is eliminated from public schools throughout Michigan, a tremendous step in reconciling the damage of emergency financial management that disproportionately impacted African-American schools in the state of Michigan during the tenure of former Governor Snyder. Snyder enabled the emergency financial manager policy … Continued
By Dr. Patrice S. Johnson
One hundred fourteen million dollars in debt is eliminated from public schools throughout Michigan, a tremendous step in reconciling the damage of emergency financial management that disproportionately impacted African-American schools in the state of Michigan during the tenure of former Governor Snyder.
Snyder enabled the emergency financial manager policy even after voters declined the dictator version of Public Act 4 (PA 4 – Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act) in 2012. According to records obtained during my study, the policy (PA 436 – Local Financial Stability and Choice Act) intends to safeguard and assure the financial accountability of school districts; however, after my investigation, I found that it left school districts fiscally and academically unstable, disempowered local leaders, and repressed cultural identity.
Moreover, and what is most egregious, this policy for both school districts and municipalities was racially biased. Although 18 state-identified financial emergencies existed, over 70% of the Black population in Michigan lived under state control via emergency financial management. Michigan is not alone in these types of policies; however, it was controversial on account of suspending local control for a single state-appointed manager with the ability to make solitary decisions on behalf of a community. The racial disparity prompted the late Rep. John Conyers to write then-Attorney General Eric Holder, stating, “While the law itself may be facially neutral, it would seem that it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion as the impacted jurisdictions have a very high proportion of African Americans.” Across the state, Detroit, Muskegon Heights, Benton Harbor, and Pontiac, Black communities existed in what one leader would call a “disruption of democracy.” Emergency management, in many respects, led to the Flint water crisis due to the governor’s very technocratic way of leading. We are familiar with Flint. However, what many people don’t realize is the impact emergency financial management had on public schools.
In Color of Emergency, I evaluate the emergency management policy and its impact on predominately Black schools and their leaders. Three of the districts I consider in my study recently received over 53.4 million dollars in debt elimination. I think this is cause for celebration and is a reconciliation from the political trauma of the racially biased emergency financial management policy.
Considering the historical context of Michigan Public Education, we ranked 48 out of 50 in public school funding during Snyder’s tenure. School districts in receivership from 2011 – 2019 (Highland Park, Detroit, Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, and Pontiac) served students who were 83.8% African American and 87.3% economically disadvantaged. The average allowance per student was $7,638 in 2018. Michigan’s educational policies, such as school of choice and a centralized funding structure (Proposal A), significantly undermined the financial solvency and academic achievement of these school districts. This makes me ask the question: should we have fixed the way we funded and supported school districts rather than initiated a band-aid with grave consequences that unfairly targeted Black schools?
Removing the debt is a great relief. However, what my research found was that policies like emergency management and the result created racial realism – a Critical Race Theory term coined by the late Derrick Bell. Essentially, emergency management left many of these school communities worse off. Its implementation for one particular school district further deteriorated the financial health of the school, almost doubling its deficit. Additionally, the school district had several different charter school contractors sorely undermining academic achievement for children within this district. Thus, from a critical race theory perspective, racial realism adequately expresses the condition of many schools that experienced emergency financial management, noting that racism is a permanent and indestructible component of this society. Essentially, here lies a cycle: black schools weren’t funded equitably in the first place, and rather than restructuring our funding model to adequately support our children, we instituted a racially bias policy that didn’t improve school conditions. It left them worse off.
The racial realist perspective acknowledges the material impact of racism and how it affects the everyday lives of people. In the case of the public schools in Michigan, policy change can mean justice and a tad bit of hope, but we should all know hope is not a strategy.
The strategy is eliminating the debt, which rights the decades of poor policy choices regarding urban schools in the state, and justice is a continued investment in technology, resources, wrap-around services, and educator development. A complete restoration of our schools must be inclusive of a few things: the continued equitable per pupil funding for schools, a focus on community-centered engagement, schools should not be in isolation from the community and vice versa, globalization of education that leans toward STEM, preparing students for the world of tomorrow, providing them the capacity to compete globally, and giving teachers and administrators the technical and cultural support necessary to engage
a new generation of learners.
But forgiving $114 Million is a great start.
Dr. Patrice S. Johnson is an expert in strategic development across multiple sectors and leads social justice work particularly for women and girls. She currently serves as the President and CEO of Project Scientist.