Questions of circumstance
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, July 3-9, 2011
The rapid-fire attacks on the people of Detroit feels personal. Now Emergency Financial Managers are accompanied by a new scheme, the Educational Achievement System. The city council, mayor and EFM are holding meetings, telling us how much they will cut, close and cancel.
All of this, they say, is forced by circumstance. We have no money. Our population is shrinking. Our schools are not performing. The powers that be have no choice.
Yet the financial crisis facing the city and state are a smokescreen for a much deeper political agenda.
If we step back from the immediate decisions that seem to pile one on top of the other, three very clear patterns emerge. These patterns have everything to do with political power, not budget short falls or low performing schools.
First, there is the assault on voting rights. For more than 70 years, conservative forces have been trying to turn back the expansion of democratic rights. Since the earliest days of the republic, when voting was restricted to a small group of white, male property owners, the rest of us have been organizing and pushing to expand that right to all of us. Whatever the shortcomings of President Obama, there is no question that his election represented the culmination of these struggles.
Now in Michigan, the right to vote is simply being “set aside.” State legislatures with the stroke of a single law have eliminated the bedrock of this electoral system—local elections. Meanwhile, as their redistricting efforts show, the republican dominated state legislature is twisting electoral districts to benefit their own power and to diminish the voice of cities in Lansing and Washington.
Second, there is the assault on community control of education. Along with the expansion of voting rights, one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement was community control of education. In cities and towns across the nation, prior to the 1960’s, public education was failing our children, forcing them to learn from outdated texts with irrelevant curriculum in wildly under funded schools.
The demands for community control resulted in some of our best practices in developing our children. Curriculum began to reflect the communities where people lived. Ideas about culture, conflict, ecology and peace were incorporated into daily studies and new kinds of alternative education emerged. People raised questions about what education is for and what role it should play in a democracy.
Now in Michigan, communities are told we cannot control our schools. After decades of cutting funding, resisting meaningful change and imposing rigid, often irrelevant standards, the State Legislature and the Governor are removing schools from the local public domain and placing them into the hands of a Governor appointed super EFM.
We are apparently all supposed to accept this because some kind foundations are promising to provide two-year college scholarships to our students if we go along with this plan.
Third, there is the assault on labor unions. The state has asserted the power to set aside or renegotiate contracts, conditions of work, pensions and basic protections for health and safety in the name of financial responsibility. Unions are demonized at every opportunity, so we are told that schools are in trouble because of teachers unions, business and government services are in trouble because of greedy workers.
Voting rights, community control and labor unions all evolved with contradictions. But with all their limitations, they are the result of struggles by people to make a more perfect union in this land.
Today, it is not economic circumstance that is dictating these assaults. It is a desire to consolidate political power in the hands of the few. These circumstances demand that we raise the real questions of what kind of country will we be? What values will we hold? What will democracy look like?