By Amanda Litvinov / lead image by John Risk
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Michigan educators unsatisfied by their governor’s response to a public health crisis his administration caused and attempted to minimize are speaking up on behalf of students and families who are suffering the effects of lead exposure.
Educators were among hundreds of protesters who stood outside the capitol in Lansing in below-freezing temperatures last week as Gov. Rick Snyder delivered the annual state-of-the-state address. They held neon poster board signs that read, “Water is a right”; “GOP Budget = poisoned city”; and “Arrest Snyder.”
In his speech, Snyder pledged to help residents of Flint, who were subjected to lead-contaminated water for more than a year following a series of budget-driven decisions made by his administration.
But educators say his plan is short on critical details, and ultimately fails to support the city’s families, whose children will likely face health and learning challenges for the rest of their lives.
“The governor didn’t go into any detail as to how the state is going to help us on this long road ahead of us. He said he would fix this, but there was really no plan,” said Karen Christian, a math intervention teacher at Potter Elementary School and president of United Teachers of Flint.
“Getting nurses into our schools and fixing the water lines is only a start,” said Christian, who attended the governor’s address as a guest of state Rep. Andy Schor (D-Lansing).
Snyder requested $28 million in supplemental aid to help fulfill immediate needs in Flint, including additional nurses for public schools. The state House and Senate passed the measure promptly.
But educators like Christian say Flint students and families deserve a more detailed and comprehensive plan for how those funds will be used and question whether they will meet long-term needs.
“Our children and parents need to have access to testing for lead poisoning and testing for cognitive impairment,” said Christian.
She stressed that Flint families—40 percent of whom live in poverty—need access to primary care and help providing children with healthy foods rich in calcium, vitamin C, and iron. Research shows that a healthy diet, important for all kids, is even more critical for children who have been exposed to lead.
And then there are the long-term resources public schools will need as children now between the ages of 0 and 5 enter a school system that was hit hard by Gov. Snyder’s historic $1 billion in cuts to Michigan public schools in 2011.
In addition to medical care and a healthy diet, research shows that early childhood education is essential to address learning and behavioral issues in children who suffered lead poisoning.
“Educators will need the resources to proactively help families deal with cognitive impairment and behavioral issues,” Christian said. “This is not a one-time fix. We will be dealing with this for years to come.”
The Michigan Education Association reports that teachers and education support professionals around the state are donating their money and time, joining in “water rallies” to collect safe drinking water for Flint residents and gathering donated food and warm winter clothing that some children lack. Bus drivers are volunteering to deliver tons of bottled water to those that need it.
Some educators and parents are also active in the movement to repeal the state’s emergency manager law, which many agree set the stage for the nightmare unfolding in Flint and has hurt mostly minority and impoverished communities.
It was the emergency manager appointed by Snyder who put cost savings before public health when he made the call to begin drawing water from the notoriously polluted Flint River in April 2014. He is also accused of brushing off complaints from residents and experts with concerns about the water.
A chemical treatment could have prevented the river water from pulling lead from Flint’s aging waterways into the water supply.
Michigan voters rejected a different version of the Emergency Manager Law in a statewide referendum in 2012, but Republican lawmakers passed a similar measure the following month, adding a small appropriation to make it immune to voter challenge.
Michigan Education Association member Susan Flory-McIntee said the Snyder administration’s elevation of financial considerations over human life brought her out to last Tuesday’s rally. “I was very much against the Emergency Manager law, and now we can see the destruction it has wrought on our people,” the Lansing teacher said.
“I just want to be a voice for justice.”
–Brenda Ortega contributed to this report.