On Monday, May 2, 2016, 94 of the Detroit Public School District’s 97 schools were closed, as massive numbers of teachers called in sick to protest a Saturday announcement that they wouldn’t get any paychecks after June 30. On that date, the emergency district manager told union leaders, about $50 million in emergency state aid will be gone and the deeply indebted district will be broke. Summer school and special education programs will likewise be cancelled if no more aid is received.
The unions encouraged calling in sick (a so-called “sick-out”) because public school teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan. This is one of several sick-outs the unions called since last year, which will likely cause “lawmakers to consider tightening the definition of what constitutes a strike.”
The Detroit Public School District has been poorly funded for a long time for several reasons, from the standard American practice of funding school districts through property taxes (ensuring poor neighborhoods have poor schools) to the low test scores that poor students consistently achieve meaning few federal funds (under programs like No Child Left Behind) to the city’s bankruptcy of three years ago. The Michigan Legislature is considering a $720 million restructuring plan to rescue the district, and today’s protest will likely push the lawmakers along.
The district is overwhelmingly black and poor. With just under 50,000 students, about 84% are black, 12% Hispanic. 80% of students are on the Free/Reduced Lunch Program. Facilities are crumbling, classrooms crowded and ill-equipped. “I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms,” a Detroit student, Wisdom Morales, said earlier this year.
The state as a whole is suffering from both a lack of revenue and the poor decisions of leaders, which devastated public services like schools and water treatment.
Like other states, especially those controlled by Republican administrations, Michigan has accrued large deficits while shifting the tax burden from large corporations and the wealthy onto low- and middle-income earners. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, for example, “dug himself into a $454.4 million deficit,” giving “away billions of dollars in tax credits to major corporations…all while squeezing more from the average citizen – some $900 million more, while corporations paid $1.7 billion less in 2014.”