clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Q&A: The roles of race, politics, and party in Benton Harbor, where Michigan’s governor wants to shutter the high school.

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to close the only high school in a predominantly black city, residents saw a betrayal. Whitmer, a Democrat, ran on a promise to help Michigan’s poorest communities.

Domingo Morel, a political scientist who has studied every state takeover of a school district in U.S. history, sees simple math.

Benton Harbor accounted for 2,320 votes in the 2018 elections, almost all of which went to Whitmer. That’s a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million total votes she garnered in a landslide victory.

Whitmer says she wants to help the children of Benton Harbor by giving them a chance to attend schools with a stronger academic track record. Not one high schooler in Benton Harbor has been deemed “college ready” based on their SAT scores in the last five years, and the district is $18 million in debt.

Still, Morel points out that the plan may not carry much political risk for Whitmer simply because Benton Harbor is a small city.

“This community is alienated and doesn’t have the political power to withstand even a Democratic governor’s intervention,” said Morel, an assistant professor at Rutgers University in Newark.

The future of the Benton Harbor district remains unclear after the school board refused to shutter the high school before Whitmer’s deadline two weeks ago. She previously threatened to disband the district entirely if the board didn’t cooperate, but has continued to negotiate, writing in a letter to the board on Tuesday that she wants to work “in partnership toward a solution that includes clear benchmarks, accountability, and more serious measures if these benchmarks are not satisfied.”

Morel, an opponent of state takeovers, argues that Whitmer’s plan for Benton Harbor can only be stopped with help from people outside of the city. Indeed, the episode — and the racist dynamics that some see at play — has thrust Whitmer into a harsh national spotlight, distracting from her political agenda for schools and roads.

We spoke with Morel to better understand how Benton Harbor fits into the national story of state takeovers. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Your book, “Takeover,” examines nearly 100 state takeovers of school districts across the U.S. How does the situation in Benton Harbor compare?

It’s pretty consistent with what we see happening in other places. Number one, you have a significant African-American population. You have a city that has African-American political empowerment — mayor, city council, school board. You have a city with a low level of resources, so they rely on resources from outside of the city to provide an education for their children. These are the factors that are associated with takeovers across the country.

How would you respond to the idea that because most of our struggling schools are in urban areas, it’s no surprise that takeovers mostly occur in those places?

To folks who say it’s no surprise that there are takeovers in these kinds of places, I’d say it doesn’t have to lead to a takeover. There could be a more collaborative approach to improving schools.

Okay, we know schools are struggling. But they are not struggling because people don’t care about the school system. They are not struggling because of corruption, although throughout our history in cities there are people who are associated with corruption.

They’re struggling because they don’t have the resources to do what they need to do.

We haven’t had a period in American history where the national government, the state government, the local government, have been working together to provide an adequate education for black students.

Takeovers emerged at a time in the 1980s when black communities were fighting for their resources, primarily through the courts.

Once that starts to happen, this is when the takeover policy kind of emerges — precisely when communities across the country are winning these cases to provide the resources that they need to provide an education.

When the issue becomes resources, then there’s an increasingly hostile relationship between state governments, who are reluctant to give up the resources, and the city governments running schools.

People could look at this differently and say, “Benton Harbor clearly doesn’t have the resources it needs to educate its children. Let’s have some kind of arrangement where the state provides the resources.” Instead, they look at Benton Harbor and say “you’re not capable of running the schools.”

The governor’s argument is that the students can’t wait for a school turnaround, that it would be unfair to keep them in an environment where academic outcomes have been so poor. Would you respond to that idea?

It just doesn’t make sense to me based on the research. Good schools have good participation, have communities and parents that are able to influence the process. It’s a shortsighted argument to say that these schools aren’t doing well, and that the only way to address that is to close the school.

It’s not a solution. And it’s only a solution that you would attempt in a particular type of community.

An interesting twist here is that the governor, who proposed this plan, is a Democrat. Many in her party have been critical of state takeovers. Are you surprised by her approach in this case?

This is where Benton Harbor is a little bit different. Generally, these takeovers take place in pretty sizeable cities — Detroit, Baltimore, Newark, Oakland. When you have a Democratic governor come in, they usually do not want to have a hostile relationship with these cities — with their mayors, their city councils, and their representatives in the state legislature.

My research shows that when there’s a political alignment between a Democratic governor and the cities, which are mostly Democratic, there’s a likelihood that you’ll have a better partnership, and more dialogue about the best way to approach education.

It’s not that Democratic governors are not in favor of takeovers. But it makes it a lot harder for them to do it when cities are mobilized.

But Benton Harbor is a small city, relatively speaking. They’re also in a county where, if I’m not mistaken, folks are predictably Republican.

In some ways this community is alienated and doesn’t have the political power to withstand even a Democratic governor’s intervention.

In this way Benton Harbor looks a little bit different than some of these major cities.

What I think needs to happen is that the other cities in Michigan — the Detroits, the Flints, the Pontiacs — that they essentially partner up with Benton Harbor to put political pressure on the governor.

Those communities represent an important constituency to that governor.

You’ve alluded to this, but would you talk a bit more about the role race plays in situations like the one in Benton Harbor? Students there, who are mostly black, have voiced discomfort with the plan to shuttle them to high schools in mostly white districts.

It’s critically important to understand that race is an important part of the story here. You’re not going to get these types of interventions in cities that aren’t majority black.

The kinds of questions I’d ask [in Benton Harbor] are, number one, how welcoming are these communities going to be for these students?

To what extent are parents and community leaders and officials going to be able to go into the new schools and make demands about teaching, curriculum, or how resources are allocated?

That’s not going to happen. No community is expected to send their kids to school and not have a say in how they get educated. We only allow that to happen to black communities.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Connect with your community

Find upcoming Detroit events

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat Detroit

Sign up for our newsletter.