Detroit's Public School Educators Lead Protests With Moral Authority On Their Side

Issue framing ranks among the more powerful weapons of political theatre. That weapon--of how to present an issue in a way that's most advantageous for one's side--is one the guardians of state power learn to brandish in the opening acts of careers that too often and too easily slide into horror shows of dangerous and self-satisfied oblivion.

It's unclear when Darnell Earley, the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) District's fourth Emergency Manager, first absorbed that lesson. But his response to educators' "sick-out" in protest of conditions as hellish as they are banal in a city as historically tormented as Detroit is an unrivaled specimen of the genre.

In recent remarks, Mr. Earley stood stone-faced as he laid the full weight of blame for school closings on the shoulders of Detroit's besieged educators. That his broadsides were totally barren of substance is precisely the point. It doesn't occur to him that the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the thing is still up for debate precisely because he wasn't enlisted to interrogate a body of facts or enroll the public in an honest deliberation of history. Just the opposite--he was charged with shielding the state from the stifling inconvenience of both. Which is to say: he was charged with fulfilling the duties of guardianship.

Predictably then, he and his ilk have hunkered down behind a layer of intellectual fog just thick enough to cloak self-evident truth. That is, at least two conditions must be satisfied in order for schools to close. The first is that the state won't give in to educators' demands. The second is that teachers won't yield to the state's rebuff of those demands. Without either, the world in which students miss school does not result. This is manifestly true. To my mind then, any serious analysis does not revolve around the bogus frame of causation, but on the axis of moral authority. An authority the state has no logical claim to.

This follows from an elementary moral principle: that one is responsible for the consequences of one's actions.

When the state obliterating democracy in Flint and then plied its trade at poisoning its children, many quaked with horror at the unflinching barbarism of it all. By what magic does the same state--and those imbued with its colossal power--mutate into champions of compromise and student well-being in Detroit? By what powers of self-delusion does the state that openly and shamelessly exploded the DPS debt-burden speak of shared sacrifice? On what authority does the state that strong-armed its most vulnerable students into a cartoonishly incompetent throwaway district wax poetic about the value of a day's work? When children spend precious classroom hours dodging the debris of decaying ceilings, it takes a ruthless detachment from reality to label protests of those conditions a misuse of time.

Let's belabor the point. It's important to understand the state's decisive role in authoring this hellscape. If we applied a burning house metaphor to DPS, the state wouldn't be a neutral spectator to a raging inferno--it pours the gasoline, strikes the match and fans the flames all while asking "what fire?"

When the state ignores this history of policymaking angled towards maiming Detroit's public schools, it fails to meet any standard of moral fitness in spectacular fashion. And any agent of that state who looks past this history can be dismissed as transparently unserious about the ethical questions they put forth.

None of which is to say that educators' actions are without consequence. They plainly are. That students have missed school is one. But what their critics miss, or rather deliberately look past, are the knowable and catastrophic consequences of inaction. Specifically, the endurance of nightmarish circumstances practically ripped from the pages of mid-twentieth century American apartheid. By acting within their power to mend the still swelling wounds from that tortuous legacy, their course is as morally correct as it is urgent.

All the while, the state of Michigan has blasted educators' demands for more humane conditions as a species of thoughtless villainy. They have that right. But in doing so, they read from a script, and join a tradition, as old as it is dubious. The disciples of that tradition have always held that the greatest threat to civilization is the same rabble that now refuses to keep quiet and take them at their sacred word. The reason isn't mysterious. The rabble has inherited another tradition, one borne by besieged peoples of every era: that power concedes nothing without a demand.