Mythologizing the Michael Brown story

In Pluto’s diary on the life of Michael Brown, you might notice one detail that’s both touching and disturbing: Mike’s graduation photograph was taken in March 2014, still many months ahead of when he would be able to graduate in August. Imagine the “why” of this fact: The grinding […]

Michael Brown’s situation was indeed unfortunate. I don’t understand what this has to do with the shooting. A friend insists this is just an interesting side note worthy of a compartmentalized discussion about academic and economic inequities and institutional racism. I think pulling these threads at this moment have the effect of adding back story to the “Michael Brown” victim-character who will inhabit the story we tell about the shooting and the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

To be clear, I am not suggesting in any way that the lethal force applied by Daren Wilson was justified. Neither am I ignoring the structural problems of public school education or the generational inequities suffered by the African-American community.

What I am saying is when we start looking at elements not directly related to the shooting, we begin the process of mythologizing the story as opposed to asking and answering the important questions like was lethal force justified in this situation according to the current rules?

Conflation does not help, rather it makes solving the problems more complicated. A good friend complained the president of the Missouri Board of Education, Peter F. Herschend, of Bransonn, MO “lives across the state. He’s a rich, politically connected businessman who runs a state board in charge of perhaps the poorest districts in the state.”

Then he said, the “state took two incredibly poor, essentially all black districts (already paying the highest tax rate in the state), merged them (instead of merging them with other adjoining districts—richer and whiter), took away their accreditation and then—when that entitled the children to be bused to other districts—they reversed that decision, locking the kids into the local schools, but run by the state, by the rich guy with no actual education training who lives nowhere near the kids who have to share graduation gowns. Even if this is business as usual, it shouldn’t be.”

I think we all agree poverty, injustice and inequity are serious problems in our society. But let’s unpack the complaint: first and foremost the school problem is complex. Racism may play a role in the change but economics and the structure for school funding are the larger controlling factors. Leaving aside any discussion about how, the local district failed its students.

When that happens the state is supposed to take over the district, help them develop and execute a plan to fix the problems, and eventually return the district to local control.

Combining two poor black school districts and manipulating the accreditation rules to keep students in place in their local districts without a clear plan to fix the problems is cynical at best and may well be racially motivated.

Nevertheless, I suspect race took a back seat to economics. School funding relies primarily on local tax receipts. Here in Massachusetts, where I live, local tax income pays between 60% – 70% of the school’s budget. The balance is made up mostly from state funds with a sprinkling of federal money.

So the bulk of the money comes from property taxes. If the residential and commercial properties lose value and there is no growth in the district, the amount of money available to allocate to the schools dwindles and therefore the per-pupil rates and monies for facilities suffer. In an ideal world the state should increase its share but that rarely happens in practice.

In fact Brown’s school district couldn’t afford to educate the kids in place. Then it cost more per pupil to send them elsewhere. Somebody has to make up the shortfall.

De-accrediting Normandy High School in effect gave ownership of a structural problem to neighboring school districts without providing them with the resources to accommodate the influx of new students.

Neighbor school were organized to accommodate their existing student population. A large influx of new students skews the calculus in many ways. E.g. The building has x number classrooms and teachers. Building more classrooms is expensive and time-consuming. Therefore, student to teacher ratios have to change. That means students suffer and teacher contracts will have to be renegotiated.

Third, teaching in poor districts is daunting and unrewarding for most educators because of the economic and social factors preying upon students and their families. Staff recruitment and retention is a problem. How does an English teacher convince students struggling for survival that it’s important to be able to identify Epic Similes in THE ODYSSEY?

As to the board president not being an educator, that’s as it should be. Like the military, schools serve the community, not the other way around. Citizen oversight is essential to ensure a proper balance of executive functions and community values. Furthermore, most boards have professional staff and the ability to hire experts so it’s not like they make uninformed decisions.

The laws in Massachusetts contemplate this by placing a statutory firewall which prevents local school committees (i.e., boards of education) from interfering with the day-to-day operations of districts and schools. Essentially they hire and fire the superintendents and allocate funds. Of course decisions can be politically motivated but that’s the nature of our government. Good luck getting that changed.

With all of that said, Michael Brown’s killing and the resulting civil unrest are horrible. We all suffer the loss of the young man and the deficiencies in our police departments and schools.

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