Education Reform

Why Were the Children of Benton Harbor, Michigan, Abandoned?

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Want proof of systemic racism in the United States today? Look no farther than this article by Annie Waldman, who wrote the following article for ProPublica. She tells the story of a district that was abandoned by the state; a district that whites fled from; a teacher doing her best during a year of COVID; and the idiotic state policy of imposing a third-grade retention policy in the midst of the pandemic.

The teacher, Ashlee Thompson, was a graduate of the Benton Harbor Public Schools. She had other career choices and other districts where she would have been paid more. But she chose to teach elementary school in Benton Harbor. In addition to the stress of teaching students who were far behind, she had another burden:

The Michigan legislature had chosen this year, of all years, to enforce a strict new literacy law: Any third grader who could not read proficiently by May could flunk and be held back.

For Benton Harbor, a small, majority-Black city halfway between Chicago and Detroit, the implications were immense. As Thompson screened her 35 students that fall, she realized 19 were not at grade level. She worried that holding them back could do more harm than good, and studies supported this fear; it could bruise their confidence, lead them to act out and even decrease their odds of graduating from high school.

As if Thompson did not have enough to worry about, there was this: The existence of her entire school district hung in the balance, and with it, the very fabric of her hometown.

For the last quarter century, schools in Benton Harbor had struggled to survive as students fled for charters and majority-white districts in neighboring towns. Because a district’s funding is tied to its number of students, Benton Harbor’s budget shrank. It cut academic offerings, froze teacher pay, closed school buildings and consolidated students into crowded classrooms. As its resources eroded, so did students’ performance on tests.

Michigan had found a remedy for such ailing districts: dissolving them. It had happened eight years ago to two other majority-Black cities, Inkster and Buena Vista. Students were absorbed into surrounding districts without a guarantee they would be attending better schools. Inkster residents, who feared losing their sense of identity, scrambled to start a museum so that their children would know they had once rallied at homecoming games around the Vikings football team.

This existential threat has loomed over Benton Harbor since 2011, when former Gov. Rick Snyder began to consider whether the state should install an emergency manager to run the city’s schools, a takeover Inkster once faced before it was ultimately dissolved.

Will majority-black, under resourced Benton Harbor schools survive? There is little evidence that the children will benefit if the district is dissolved. Disruption—not better education—is the name of the game. No one remembers why someone thought it was a good idea to dissolve struggling districts or to hand them over to emergency managers or to let the state take control. Those strategies are relics of a generation of failed reforms.

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