Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why The Poisoning Of Flint Is A Lesson For Us

There are few things that anger me more than those who abuse their power in the name of a greasy buck. For those of you who have not heard, the city of Flint, Michigan has been in the news lately because its entire population of around 100,000 has been poisoned by lead contaminated drinking water, including some 8,500 children. Lead poisoning is known to cause a wide range of health problems including brain damage and even death. The effects are irreversible and are particularly damaging in children.

In 2011, the city's financial management was taken over by the state via Governor Rick Snyder's extremely aggressive use of a law that allows him to appoint a dictator to run the city under the moniker "emergency manager." This emergency manager is installed above the mayor and city council, effectively robbing the citizens of a city of their democratic voice. This emergency manager then, acting as a sort of CEO, in the name of saving a buck, switched the city's water supply away from a safe source to the heavily polluted Flint River, a waterway made that way over decades by the automotive industry. The express purpose was saving money. Even as citizens complained about the smell, taste, and even toxicity of their water, this emergency manager, with the full support of state government, denied the problem for well over a year. Recently released emails, however, prove that they've long known the water was lead-contaminated, yet they've only been forced to admit the tragic truth recently under pressure from citizens who have watched their loved ones suffer and even die because of these criminals who want to "run government like a business."

I've been married to a serial entrepreneur for 30 years, and through that process have learned a little something about how a good business operates. I'm aware that there is far more to it than just cutting costs to the bone, but in Michigan and elsewhere across our country, the phrase "running government like a business" is a mantra that is most often translated politically as cutting costs to the bone. When I worked for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1980's, "privatizing" governmental functions was one of our initiatives. It was always understood that saving money was the primary thing we were selling. Not at all surprisingly, some of the evidence seems to indicate that the switching of the water supply to the Flint River was the beginnings of a masterplan to privatize the water supply. In other words, they were going to sell a piece of their government to private investors right along with democratic accountability. What a stupid thing: to turn the management of such an essential things as water over to private enterprise, where profit, not citizen health and well-being is the number one concern. It's the kind of thing that invariably and predictably leads to the poisoning of all the children.

And as for saving money, taxpayers will be paying for the health damage this has caused for a generation, just the way taxpayers had to bailout the banks for the damage cause by their crimes that lead to the Great Recession of 2008. Government is government: it cannot be run like a business.

This should be a lesson to those of us who care about public education. The corporate march to privatize our schools has been on for a good decade or more, with some districts (most notably New Orleans) already fully privatized in the most horrifying of ways. Our schools have been overrun by such corporate-inspired measures as high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, school closures, union-busting, and scandal-plagued charter schools, all of which are the educational equivalent of switching our water supply to the Flint River. It is toxic and, like in Flint, our children are being forced to drink it.

(Note: Please also read Nancy Flanagan's comment below for important details on what is happening in Michigan.)

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1 comment:

Nancy Flanagan said...

The story goes much deeper than your (excellent) piece. I lived, for 20 years, just south of the city of Flint. My son still lives there.

Flint did not actually save money by switching to Flint River water. The switch was made to support a new water project promoted by a range of corporate interests (and being built right now, using public monies). The new water project will support fracking, among other corporate interests.

It is hard for folks in other states to understand why MI citizens allow something like the "emergency manager" system (which has been in place and in use since 1999). Well--they don't. In 2012, there was a citizen-led ballot initiative to rescind Public Act 4, the emergency manager law. It passed, convincingly. In December 2012, in lame duck session, the Republican legislature passed a new, tougher emergency manager law, with a clause declaring that it could not be overturned by a ballot initiative.

The relevant piece of information here, for the nation and for progressive educators, is that emergency management schemes begin with public school systems. (Detroit, in the case of MI.) When beleaguered urban systems cost more (the proportion of kids in Special Ed is one reason), and show poor test results, the state steps in and hires an emergency manager for "fiscal stability." Once the people accept disenfranchising elected boards, it's a short hop to cities being similarly disenfranchised.

A lot of the heat in this story will be lost, once the nation feels that Flint children and families have safe water, and the infrastructure is being gradually replaced. But there's something very sinister that caused this tragedy. If you think it can't happen to you--well, the Governor of IL just proposed an emergency manager for Chicago Schools.