Opinion: Whitmer misguided in Benton Harbor crisis

Thomas C. Pedroni

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is in over her head in Benton Harbor Area Schools. Suddenly, though, our fledgling governor is waking up to the reality that she is alienating the very demographic — black and progressive voters — who just seven months ago propelled her to the state’s highest office.

Earlier this month community educational advocates from predominately black districts across the state gathered in Benton Harbor to express support for the district’s families, encouraging the BHAS elected board to remain steadfast in its refusal to endorse the governor’s “proposal.” They highlighted the harm inflicted by previous state strong-arming in Inkster, Buena Vista, Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Saginaw, Detroit and Albion. Many reserved special animus for a governor who had campaigned on a promise to buoy education and protect local communities from the type of state meddling engaged in by her gubernatorial predecessors.

Benton Harbor High School students gather in front of the high school in Benton Harbor, Mich., Tuesday, June 11, 2019, during an annual Peace Walk held at the end of the school year.  A southwestern Michigan school board has released a plan aimed at keeping the district's high school open and avoiding a state-threatened shutdown of the struggling district.

Lost in all this, and apparently lost even on the governor herself, is the question of from where her authority to do any of the things she is threatening actually derives. While BHAS is currently a party to a cooperative agreement negotiated with the state, the state partner in that agreement is the Michigan Department of Education, not Whitmer. The State Board of Education and interim Superintendent Sheila Alles, who directs MDE, have already declared that no dramatic changes should take place in Benton Harbor without the locally elected board at the helm all the way from design to execution.

While former Gov. Rick Snyder had some leverage over the district via a consent agreement inked with BHAS in 2014, the state treasurer ended that agreement in November 2018, declaring the financial emergency over. Whitmer has threatened to dissolve the district entirely if her demand to close the high school is not met, yet the only legal way for this to happen would be for MDE to work with Treasury in documenting a new financial emergency, just seven months after the district exited this status while under a cooperative agreement that put the state in sole control of the district.

Not only would this take considerable time and legal gymnastics — it would also pose even greater political peril for the governor, as she would need to invoke the rightfully hated emergency manager law implicated in the poisoning of Flint’s water and the further degradation of the Detroit Public Schools.

Neither the state nor the local board could effectively manage the academic and financial crisis in Benton Harbor (or for that matter in many other low-income, predominately African-American districts) because the crisis is not primarily a crisis of management.

Rather, it is a crisis deeply embedded in state education policies — policies that if left unchanged will continue to rip apart and undermine predominately black and low-income districts across the state.

School districts in Michigan continue to be funded through the mechanisms established in 1994’s Proposal A, which monetized children. Schools of choice and charter school legislation introduced a system in which surrounding districts and charter schools were given a strong financial incentive to draw students away from the mostly African-American, low-income and under-resourced districts of our city centers. Today, each student who lives within an urban district but is drawn to a nearby charter school or district carries over $8,000 away with them.

Whitmer, if she is to get herself out of her self-created political quagmire, should recognize what predominately African-American communities across the state already know: That while one can always find examples of poor local management (in both rich and poor districts), it is state educational policies that will continue to grind down and destabilize even the best-managed low-income, predominately African-American districts across our state.

Her first step should be to reverse her reckless course in Benton Harbor. Her second step needs to be to recognize that it is state policy frequently exacerbated by state intervention, not predominately black governance, that kills our city schools.

Thomas C. Pedroni is associate professor of curriculum studies and policy sociology at Wayne State University.