I was recently at a social event when I mentioned to an educator friend that I was off to protest the Detroit water shut offs the following day. I also added that every educator should be there.
She paused and looked at me, and then asked, “Give me the nutshell explanation that connects water shut offs to educational issues.”
Without the nutshell part, here goes…
Some Context- Detroit Today
As a city on the forefront of what David Blacker calls the “neoliberal endgame,” Detroit is a fascinating, if tragic study. Detroit is under the rule of an Emergency Management. The laws allowing for the emergency manager were promoted by ALEC legislation (sound familiar educators?) and have disenfranchised the voters of Detroit in favor of a ruler, Kevyn Orr, who has virtually no accountability in our so-called democracy. Upon acquiring this office, Orr almost immediately led Detroit into bankruptcy.
At the same time, Detroit Public Schools have been under Emergency Management since 2009. Clearly, this experiment isn’t working in Detroit. As quoted in Eclectablog:
“What the Detroit schools situation shows is that the problems in Detroit aren’t simply financial and they aren’t simply a matter of poor management. Without addressing the core issues of poverty, blight, crime, and a host of other modern plagues experienced by our aging urban cores, no amount of cost-cutting, privatizing, experimental teaching models, or management gimmickry is going to have the desired impact.”
In addition, the lowest 5% “performing” schools in the state, as measured by achievement data, have been removed from Detroit Public Schools and put into a newly created state-run district, the Educational Achievement Authority. The EAA is run by a governor appointed superintendent who doesn’t have the pesky obstacle of democracy in his way. This district is, to no surprise, failing miserably.
So it is in this very general context that the water shut offs are occurring. Some background:
In May of this year, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began a crusade to collect unpaid fees by residents of Detroit. They are currently shutting off water access to any Detroit resident who is either $150 or two months behind in payment. This will affect over 120,00 account holders over a 3 month period at a rate of 3,000 shut offs per week. (The suspicion of many is that the shut offs are occurring in the midst of Detroit’s bankruptcy in order to make DWSD more attractive for privatization.)
Mind you, this is occurring in a major US city, the richest country in the world, that has a poverty rate of 44%, is over 80% black, whose residents have already have their democratic vote similarly cut off, in a state that is surrounded by 4 of the largest fresh water lakes in the world.
At the same time, commercial interests in Detroit owe over $30 million in water bills, yet their water flows evenly. (See more here.)
It seems that many of those factors have a strong correlation to the false narrative of “failing schools.”
Me thinks no.
The foundation of neoliberal market fundamentalism is the assumption that all things, including human beings, are valued according to their worth in the market place. This value is determined by level of “achievement.”
In education, achievement is measured by test scores. Those who score highest win. Those who don’t are punished- and the means of this punishment is defunding, the closing of schools, the loss of local agency, and the correlating re-opening of schools as for profit charter, a race that Michigan is winning hugely with over 80% of its charters being for profit.
In other areas of life, achievement is measured by job status and salary. Worth is determined by ability to pay. The less you are able to pay, the less you are actually valued. Those in poverty really aren’t worth much. Their “value added” to the efficiency of our economy is a negative. Such humans are punished with a system that blames them for their poverty, and then shuts off such necessities for human life as water.
The logic of blaming schools, teachers and students for their problems, in spite of the context that they exist within, is the same as the logic of blaming the poor for their problems, in spite of the context they exist within. Our market driven system’s answer is to develop “incentives” to drive behavior. Achieve, in spite of the forces working against such achievement, or have your schools defunded and shut down. Pay, in spite of the forces working against your ability to so, or have your water shut off. (No coincidence that these forces in both contexts are identical.)
Neoliberalism uses the politics of austerity to blame, punish, and then profit. It erases the context of poverty for the purpose of privatizing the common good.
The United Nations has determined that the water shut offs are inhumane. So very true.
At the same time, the shut offs simply follow the logic of neoliberalism.
And it is the logic of neoliberalism that those of us who are not in the 1%, including educators, are really fighting.