A few days ago, I posted something here about the findings of a study on affordable housing commissioned by Washtenaw County. The published report, as you may recall, didn’t paint a very pretty picture. Our communities, according to the authors of the study, are rapidly becoming segregated, with less-well-off people, especially people of color, quickly consolidating in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, where the poverty rate is already approaching 30%. And this, in their professional opinion, is not tenable. If not dealt with, the authors point out, it’s not just Ypsilanti that will suffer from the resulting instability. This “imbalance in income, education and opportunity between the jurisdictions, along with the segregation that goes with it,” they say, “will hamper the regional economic growth potential of the (entire) area.” And, with that in mind, they made several suggestions. And it’s one of those suggestions in particular that I’d like for us to talk about today. The authors of this study recommended that we “create a unified Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti School District,” the thought being that more financially stable families would consider living in Ypsilanti if our schools were stronger, better funded, and backed up by Ann Arbor. This one thing, in their opinion, would go a long way toward addressing the growing inequality that we’re seeing develop across the region. Not only would the children of Ypsilnati have access to more in the way of educational resources, but it would also lead to some degree of normalization across our communities with regard to household income, etc.
Given that Ann Arbor residents this past November voted overwhelmingly against the idea of annexing the Whitmore Lake public schools, I don’t see how a merger of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti’s districts would stand a chance, but I do think it’s a worthwhile conversation to have. And, I should add, I know that there are those in County government who would disagree. I have it on good authority that many folks at the County would prefer that such a conversation not be had, as they think, perhaps rightly, that such a conversation would only serve to derail their more achievable objectives, like getting more low-income housing built in Ann Arbor. I haven’t heard this explicitly from anyone in County government, but I also get the sense that our elected officials feel as though suggesting consolidation of our two districts would be career suicide.
And folks who feel that way are probably right. There’s no reason to think that the voters of Ann Arbor, when they just voted against assimilating the small, white, relatively well-performing Whitmore Lake district, wold ever consider joining forces with the more complex, considerably poorer Ypsilanti district. (In the case of Whitmore Lake, there was even State money on the table, and the voters still said no.)
In spite of this, though, I went ahead and reached out to a few folks on the Ypsilanti Community Schools Board of Education, and asked what they thought of the idea. The first person to respond to me was Eastern Michigan University Assistant Professor Celeste Hawkins, who was just recently elected to a new four-year term on the board. Here’s what she had to say. [It should be noted that what follow are her personal opinions, and not those of the board.]
Thank you for the opportunity to offer my perspective. As it relates to your particular question on my thoughts related to the suggestion of merging the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti school systems, I would be remiss if I did not first offer my view on the larger issue as it relates to the interconnectedness of race, class, education, and the pervasive inequalities that disproportionately impact those with lower incomes and people of color. The Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis report demonstrates that patterns of racial and economic segregation both locally and nationally have led to economic and educational opportunities being vastly diminished along the lines of race and class.
As a proud resident of Ypsilanti Township who intentionally chose to live in this community, I have some strong personal views grounded in research about the aforementioned topics. I feel fortunate to live in Ypsilanti and am proud of all that it offers in terms of its rich history, culture, and diversity that is often not widely shared and quite frankly overshadowed by negative characterizations of Ypsilanti. I have not experienced nor do I see firsthand the “livability disadvantages” referenced in the report (p. 28). However, I am not naïve in thinking that perception is often reality for many and is a major issue facing both the city and township of Ypsilanti. The report poignantly suggests that for the entire county to thrive Ann Arbor must prioritize investing in more affordable housing and Ypsilanti must make a concerted effort to grow their demand by “investing in livability” (p. 55). Based on the findings of the report, I agree that there is no sustainability in attempting to defer to Ypsilanti as the remedy for affordable housing, instead Ypsilanti would benefit from proactively seeking to reverse the trajectory of disinvestment. The viability of all communities in Washtenaw County will contribute to its overall sustainability — as the report points out, there is no gain in maintaining high concentrations of poverty and wealth in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. Further, it is important to note that I did not draw the conclusion from the Housing Affordability and Economic Equity Analysis report that the solution was to expand the affordable housing stock in Ypsilanti, but rather redistribute the availability of the affordable housing stock by balancing and expanding accessibility in Ann Arbor in order to avoid distressing and placing an undue financial burden on Ypsilanti. As such, the community is uniquely poised to engage in conversations to identify ways to re-invest in Ypsilanti.
In my view, as it relates to equity, an understanding of how society constructs and perpetuates racial and class stereotypes of lower income families must be stated. It is disheartening that the poor are often pathologized (who are mainly people of color) due to lack of “middle class rules,” but fails to take into account the failings of the system, which create conditions that allow poverty to persist. Society often plays the “blame the victim” game and fails to take into account the institutionalized racism and classism that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Placing the blame on the oppressed instead of looking at the big picture such as inequalities in the school system, economic system, and the power system reproduces and maintains patterns of inequality.
The pathological analysis of poverty that blames the victim for their poverty while failing to acknowledge the structural reasons as a result of the shortcomings of the system is shortsighted at best. Unfortunately, when society focuses on the individual reasons as the most important factors related to poverty, structural reasons such as unemployment and discrimination are typically ignored and viewed as less important. This idea of pathologizing the poor, rather than seriously focusing on the structural causes of poverty itself has been used as justification for policies that have perpetuated poverty leading to minimal urban investment, low household income that cannot support most needy families, and misplaced spending priorities that only encourage and facilitates under-resourced schools and the school to prison pipeline (Kushnick & Jennings, 1999; Rank, 2004).
Views on poverty often gives policy-makers and those with no previous understanding of poverty a very simple way of explaining the behavior of poor people as lazy, shiftless, knowing how to purchase a gun, and knowing their way around a jail, which often makes people rationalize viewing poor people negatively and apathetic about the conditions of poverty. This peripheral and marginalizing view of poverty helps to make people feel comfortable about playing the blame game to justify the stereotypical excuses that allow for the existence of societal issues like poverty.
The problems with institutionalized racism and classism will continue to pervade public education until social changes take place. The schools operate from middle-class norms and values, so views of poverty often shifts the blame away from the school system to the students who “seem” to lack “middle class rules” to succeed in school, thus instead of systematically addressing the issue and critiquing the structural inequalities facing public education, the blame is often shifted to the individual, the family, and the community. This is a social justice issue in need of redress and if left unaddressed from a systemic standpoint will have dire consequences for far too many of our children.
I am optimistic about this proactive approach being taken by Washtenaw County to conduct such a thorough needs assessment and making suggestions on a variety of plausible interventions to perhaps address this disturbing trend.
That being said, your particular question on the suggestion of a merge quite frankly is a strategy we should all be looking at to leverage all available resources to enhance and improve educational opportunities for all students in the county, however these conversations are preliminary at best and if the response to the annexation of Whitmore Lake is any indication of the community’s appetite for expanding school boundaries, then it will take a lot of time and energy to see any movement in that direction. So now that we see that there is the potential for certain segments of the community to become increasingly segregated along the lines of race and class and an overall need to invest in the sustainability of the entire county, it is not merely enough to describe the water when we see the community drowning, we must all do our part by first acknowledging and then seeking to understand the equity issues facing our community more broadly and jump in through efforts of advocacy and raising awareness to save it.
So, should we not talk merger? By doing so, are we jeopardizing other, more achievable goals relative to affordable housing? And, on the other side, if we don’t take the opportunity afforded to us by the publication of this report to have an open, honest discussion, are we doing ourselves a disservice? Personally, I’d be happy to never mention the idea of a merger again, just so long as there was evidence of real, meaningful collaboration between the districts, and an acceptance of the fact that, if we’re to be successful as a region, we need to think beyond our borders and acknowledge the interconnectedness of our communities… But how does one get there from where we are today? How do we use our schools to reverse the harmful segregation that we’re seeing increase around us?