Jun 10, 2019
Newly seated Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has posed parents in the city of Benton Harbor with a false choice of biblical proportions: close your high school, or else see your entire school district dissolved – and perhaps turned over to charter schools.
Benton Harbor High School is the only high school serving a town of 10,000. Currently, 700 students from this low-income largely black town go there; under Whitmer’s plan, they would be pushed out into the neighboring school districts.
Benton Harbor students, parents and community residents staged a rally and held several community meetings to protest the destruction of their high school. One sophomore at the school questioned, “how can you have a community when you don’t have a high school?” Parents also note that students pushed out of Benton Harbor are likely to get a chilly reception – the surrounding school districts are predominantly white, and all are more affluent.
The Benton Harbor School Board, threatened with dissolution by Whitmer and the state government, has so far refused to agree to any plan that involves closing the high school. They observed in a public letter that the property on which the high school sits is near the town’s waterfront and possibly coveted by real estate developers.
Whitmer and other politicians say they must act, because the Benton Harbor schools are in crisis. Yes, but it is a crisis wrought by the capitalist class and their politicians. Whirlpool, which for decades employed thousands, shut down its last plant in Benton Harbor in 2011. Benton Harbor is now among Michigan’s poorest communities, which means a poor student population. Rather than shoring up the schools in need of the most support, Michigan politicians allow students to transfer out of poor school districts – taking funding with them. So students have fled poor districts like Benton Harbor. This is why the district has been losing money, and why it owes $18 million to the state.
Benton Harbor teachers are the lowest paid in the state, taking home only $28,000 a year – a salary that qualifies some for food stamps. The low pay makes teachers hard to hire and hard to retain, so the district is forced to rely on substitutes.
In the midst of this crisis, 700 of the 8,000 dollars allocated for each student goes to paying back the debt to the state instead of providing an education. The high school’s library was shut down until volunteers came in and used their own money to re-open it. Enid Goldstein, one of those volunteers, called the situation “the Flint water of education. It’s education apartheid.”
Whitmer campaigned in Benton Harbor, promising to support education. In office, she proposes to tear apart the school system. Pointed words from one protestor: “As far as I’m concerned, Governor Whitmer, you can take your policies and send them straight to hell.”