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Separate and Unequal: Sorry, Poor Black Kids, Your School Just Got Closed

Politicians and policy makers think they can get away with shortchanging Buena Vista because of its demographics.

\n\n\n\n\nPublic schools have the legal responsibility to educate all children, but if you head to the home page for Michigan's Buena Vista School District and take glance at the "Upcoming Events" section, you'll see some large print that indicates otherwise: "School will be Closed until Further Notice."

Never mind that school wasn't supposed to get out till June 13th, and never mind that the teachers were even willing to work for free. After the tiny, 450-student Saginaw County district ran out of money last week, all 27 teachers were laid off and three schools were shuttered, leaving the students out of luck.

Over the past few years Buena Vista, like many school districts across America, has struggled with declining enrollment and slashed budgets. District officials accepted $401,962.51 from the state for a defunct youth program and then used the funds to pay for other operating costs. When the state demanded that Buena Vista return the money, the coffers were empty, so the state refused to provide other funding to the district in order to recoup what was owed. Without that funding, the district has had no choice but to close down the schools.

While it's obvious there's some financial management issues going on in Buena Vista, figuring out who to blame can come later. As Chris Hayes asks in the All In With Chris Hayes segment above, are we really going to pick money over kids? Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening. Michigan has $500 million in a rainy day fund but Republican governor Rick Snyder refuses to help Buena Vista, saying, "That's not what the rainy day funds were intended for."

The federal government is stepping in with grant money to offer an optional camp for kids in grades K-11 that will cover the literacy and math skills assessed on the state standardized test—but it's not school, and it's not the kind of education that students in other communities are ending their school year with. As Hayes and Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents the area around Buena Vista, go on to discuss, leaving the students—91 percent are on reduced or free lunch and the majority of them are black—without the opportunity to go to school is "not an accident."

What do they mean by that? Ask yourself if a school district shutting down six weeks early, laying off all the teachers, and leaving the students without a school would be tolerated in communities where families are wealthier and whiter? It would never happen because those families use their social capital and political clout to get things done. It's also clear that politicians and policy makers think they can get away with shortchanging Buena Vista, assuming that because of its demographics, there will be no repercussions when it comes time to get re-elected or re-appointed.

If that's not separate and unequal treatment, then what is?

In a speech on Monday, Kildee reiterated that "The students of Buena Vista have a constitutional right to an education and deserve the same educational opportunities as other Michigan children, and that means being in a classroom full-time to complete their school year."

There's a deficit elimination plan on the agenda for Tuesday night's Buena Vista School Board meeting. Let's hope this means things are on the road to being worked out so that the kids in the community can get back to school, and get back to receiving the education they deserve.

Click here to add attending a school board meeting to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Image via (cc) Flickr user Rico Marcelli

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